Five years ago, as the lights dimmed in Rio’s stadiums and the last firework fizzled, all eyes turned to Tokyo.

Japan held their Olympic bid high, heralding a much needed economic restart following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. If they had only known.

Was it too much to ask for a normal Olympics, after the very un-normal year we had? Though, it seems no one knows what ‘normal’ is anymore. It’s become a word devoid of meaning, it’s empty, just like the 2020 Olympics instead taking place in 2021.

Credit: International Handball Federation

In all aspects the Olympics are an empty shell of what we have previously known them to be. Athletes struggle against the pressure of the whole world looking to them for a distraction and Japan itself fights against its fifth wave, with the daunting Delta variant at the forefront.

Japan promised a show and they are doing their level best to deliver on that promise, but numbers don’t lie. Japan’s vaccine rollout has been slow, less than 20% of people have received their first dose. Tokyo declared a state of emergency for the games, but neighbouring prefectures are only in quasi-states of emergency, allowing minimal movement to and from Olympic events.

On the 29th of July 9,000 cases of covid were recorded nationally. Hospitals are full while 3,400 people are waiting for beds. The people of Japan are scared and vocally so. As the opening ceremony began, shouts from protesters could be heard from outside the empty stadium and a petition to cancel the games gathered over 450,000 signatures.

But many don’t understand the issue, the athletes are in a ‘bubble’, unable to leave due to daily testing and social distancing. On top of that, the IOC has reported that 84% of the Olympic Delegates are vaccinated.

So, what’s the big deal? The thing is that while the eyes of the world are distracted by the athletes, the reality is that their attendance has allowed the Delta variant to run for gold. The ‘bubble’ itself is not as secure as many think, with volunteers and workers moving in and out every day, a constant threat that this so called bubble might burst.

The Olympics were supposed to bring money into Japan’s economy, but that’s hard to achieve with closed bars and restaurants, and without movement in the community. While a state of emergency exists in Tokyo, bars are open, and so are restaurants, allowing the virus to spread. While the government had its head, and budget, turned to the Olympics, the virus has crept through the crack.

It’s hard to know what the government will do. With cancelling the games off the table, especially since they are well and truely underway, perhaps this will speed up vaccination, or force a harsher lockdown. Otherwise, we may see the 2020 Olympics become the deadliest yet.

The effect that these empty Olympics have had on the competing athletes has been huge. The thought of even entering the Olympics, travelling to another country, and competing against the best in world is daunting enough. But add a world that desperately needs a distraction, and you’re asking for trouble. This is something that many athletes have already voiced, making it clear that this year, they’re competing for the fans.

For most events, the stadiums have held an almost non-existent audience, which, of course, makes sense given the situation we find ourselves in. However, research has found that empty stadiums have a detrimental effect on athletes, especially those on the home side.

The feeling of not having your support system, whilst competing on the world stage can be soul-crushing. This is what Australian basketball player Liz Cambage indicated when she withdrew from the games before they even began. Cambage said the thought of competing without the support of her friends and family would be ‘terrifying’. Naomi Osaka, similarly, fell out of the run for any medal, much earlier than many thought, and she later conceded that the pressure of these Olympics, was just too much.

Credit: Edgar Su / Reuters

But the real indication of this came when Simone Biles, 4-time Olympic gold medalist and 19-time world champion, withdrew from the Artistic Gymnastic team finals, the all round competition, and 3 out of 4 events in the individual finals. It was clear something was not right when her vault routine took a turn for the worse, with many athletes commenting that it was a miracle she even landed on her feet.

Credit: Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

Biles said the pressure of being one deemed one of the best gymnasts, along with the pressure from covid, had negatively affected her mental health. Her withdrawal from events was her way of prioritising her team’s chances to medal, as well her own mental and physical wellbeing. Biles noted that she was inspired by Osaka’s willingness to admit she was struggling, and felt that meant she too could talk about her own wellbeing. Thankfully, most of the world’s media have only shown support for Biles as she displayed bravery to speak about prioritising her mental health, a topic too many in the sports world shy away from.

As we move through these Olympic Games, and as we cheer on our Olympians, don’t be distracted by the pretty lights. After all, these Olympics have been the hardest on people yet.

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