TOKYO — “Dear fans,” the public address announcer boomed, and in an alternate universe, perhaps, thousands perked up as the Olympics got underway. But here, on Wednesday, the first day of competition, none heard him.
“Welcome to the Tokyo Stadium,” he continued, as if clueless to the obvious reality that this game, and the entire Games, will take place without spectators. He charged through an introduction to the U.S. women’s soccer team’s Olympic opener against Sweden. He then ceded to energetic music, and a countdown to kickoff, and then, mostly, to silence. A faint, ever-present rustle of fake crowd noise rolled down from the top of the 50,000-seat venue.
Megan Rapinoe heard it. Or thought she did, but wasn’t quite sure. “I was like, is that a fan?” she wondered.
Rapinoe and her teammates were one of two U.S. squads to get a feel for these fan-less Olympics on Wednesday. She, like most athletes, has played in some empty stadiums over the past 18 months. “We're pretty used to this by now,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said.
But empty Olympic stadiums still felt different. Significant. Almost surreal.
“I'm not gonna lie, that part sucks,” Rapinoe said.
Rapinoe is at her sixth major international tournament, and third Olympics. The “buzz,” she said, is always “one of the best parts.” On Wednesday, players were left to create their own buzz. As the U.S. starting 11 marched onto the field, the seven substitutes began clapping, then yelling, and in Julie Ertz’s case letting out a prolonged high-pitched shriek.
It carried all the way to the upper deck. Nobody else was cheering, nor were they supposed to be. Not the hundreds of volunteers. Not the scores of media. Certainly not the potted plants occupying handicap seating. And definitely not the entire east side of the stadium, which was deserted.
It was, for the USWNT, the latest stage of an Olympic experience unlike any other. The team has vast experience at the Games. Eleven of the 18-woman roster are Olympic veterans. They know how festive this is supposed to feel, how festive it was five years ago in Rio, how festive it was nine years ago in London.
This time, “there's quite literally no fanfare,” Rapinoe said. “There's signage, and you got the lanyard, and you have all the things to make it feel like an Olympics.” But this one, she said, “is completely different” than her others.
“I think now that's everything's kicking off, we'll be able to watch more events on TV, you'll get all the little backstories, and from that perspective, it'll feel more like it,” she said, hopefully. “But to play a major championship in a stadium with — there's probably like 100 people here total — obviously it's really different.”
Logistically, the USWNT’s stay so far has been smooth. Their home base, after a pre-Games camp in Miyazaki, has been a Tokyo hotel, where they’re tested every day. But once they’re done with soccer and health checks … they can’t really do anything.
“Obviously you're in the middle of Tokyo, and there's not really a green space, or anywhere that you can go,” Rapinoe said. “So that's a little tougher.”
“I think the work-life balance is probably a little off,” she added, “or completely off at this time.”
She’s not complaining, to be clear. She’s “thankful that we even have a tournament.” And “I'm not saying that we should have fans,” she said. “I don't think we should, actually.”
Nonetheless, the lack of ambient human emotion “definitely changes the dynamic a lot,” Rapinoe said. Wednesday’s game produced a somewhat seismic result, a 3-0 Sweden takedown of the pre-tournament favorite. But there was nothing readily available to tell you how seismic it was. No crowd to narrate the action, to express shock, to amplify everything about the occasion.
And while none of that is a reason the U.S. “got our asses kicked,” as Rapinoe said, it’s not unreasonable to think it played a role.
“Probably the atmosphere,” Rapinoe said, “sucked a little bit out of us.”
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