TOKYO — There were no fans in the 10,000-seat Ariake Coliseum to watch Novak Djokovic begin his quest for the elusive Golden Slam on Saturday, nor to cheer on Barbora Krejcikova as she was introduced as the reigning French Open singles and doubles champion nor as Andy Murray and Joe Salisbury recorded an upset win in their doubles opener over No. 2-seeded Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut on an outer court.
And yet, despite the at times eerie buzz of the relentless cicadas surrounding the otherwise silent stadium, the muted scene felt oddly familiar and almost a beacon of normalcy among the surreal backdrop of the 2020 (+1) Olympic Games.
Players have been accustomed to empty stadiums around the world since the sport restarted in August 2020 after a five-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fans were welcomed back in large numbers to great enthusiasm at Wimbledon earlier this month, but the silence is nothing new.
The temperatures soared into the mid-90s for much of the day on Centre Court, and it felt significantly hotter as the sun radiated off the hard court, yet even as the sweat dripped through the mask covering my face, it felt like such a relief and, well, normal. Whatever that might mean these days.
With the heavy restrictions and protocols, large police presences, protests around the city and the latest looming threat of the virus, the Games have felt anything but normal and have been marred by controversy since their rescheduled date was announced last year. For athletes, officials, support staff and media members, there’s a daily health check, frequent temperature readings, saliva testing — yes, it is as glamorous as it sounds — and ever-changing rules no one can quite keep up with.
Friday night’s opening ceremony at National Stadium only emphasized the strangeness of it all despite its best attempts to mask it. The venue was heavily guarded and barricaded, isolating the event from all but a few, and the walk toward it felt more like the start of an apocalyptic movie than a celebratory event. Inside the state-of-the-art venue, built for $1.5 billion ahead of the Games, most of the 70,000 seats sat empty and the majority of concession stands and souvenir stores were shuttered.
As the approximately 4,400 stakeholders, dignitaries and journalists who were able to attend waited for the event to begin, the sounds of a protest outside echoed throughout. A woman on a megaphone led chants in Japanese, and hundreds joined her across the street from the stadium as media members tried to catch a glimpse through fences above.
“Go to hell, IOC,” they chanted in Japanese.
Even the blaring music during the ceremony couldn’t drown out their cries, and protests continued throughout the evening — with protesters expressing the overwhelming frustration of the Japanese public toward the lack of cancellation of the Games despite increasing cases of COVID-19 and the city being placed in yet another state of emergency through next month.
The traditional parade of nations in which each country is introduced to the stadium could hardly have been described as an Olympic moment anyone had dreamed of. With no loved ones in attendance, no family and friends or childhood coaches to loudly cheer in admiration for a lifelong ambition come true, there was just a smattering of applause and the glow of laptops from reporters in the stands. Many athletes opted to skip the event, and others headed for the exit as soon as their turn was over.
So, to sit in the sweltering hot sun on Saturday afternoon and watch a viral moment from Daniil Medvedev unfold in person or to hear Christina Aguilera and heck, even Nickelback and Hanson(!), blare over the loudspeakers during changeovers and in between matches was a much-appreciated diversion.
Witnessing Djokovic doing exactly what he does best — dominate in flawless fashion in just over an hour over Hugo Dellien — felt like a chance to forget about the chaos of everything else and just focus on watching one of the greatest of all time try to make history.
At the end of Djokovic’s 6-2, 6-2 victory, he did his famed, and often mocked, postmatch celebration in which he pushes both arms toward each side of the stadium in gratitude. A few dozen badged spectators cheered and even stood behind his seat in hopes of scoring a selfie, in which he obliged.
Some 90 minutes later, and after weaving through more closed-off streets filled with military vehicles in a media shuttle and yet another temperature check, I wasn’t sure what I would find inside the Tokyo Aquatics Center. I had envisioned more empty stands and audible sounds of hands and feet striking through the water, and not much else.
But it was remarkably lively and boisterous.
Teammates who weren’t scheduled to compete during the night’s qualifying heats sat in the stands cheering wildly for their fellow countrymen and women and filled much of the lower level. The Germans had a large flag that nearly took up its own row of seats and draped smaller flags around the railings of their section as the Americans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and waved their own flags. There were thunder sticks and vuvuzelas and “Come on!” yells. On television, it might have even been impossible to tell fans weren’t permitted with all of the noise.
Everyone there was just making the best of an unprecedented situation. If we’re lucky, that might just be the theme of the next two weeks across all sports.
It goes without saying these Olympic Games will be like none other. But Saturday showed there still can — and will — be moments that showcase incredible athleticism and, perhaps most importantly, the triumph of the human spirit.
We can all probably use that distraction.