SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Cavernous, empty stadiums. Do-it-yourself medal presentations. A prohibition on athlete high-fives and hugs. Those are just a few of the ways the Summer Olympics will look different this year, as the pandemic forces organizers to forgo many Olympic traditions.
The Tokyo Games, which start Friday, will instead rely on technological innovations, including fan selfies and other ways to digitally “cheer” for athletes, to help spur fan engagement.
The big question: how much will anyone care?
Amid a pandemic that is still raging in most parts of the world, there are signs global interest is lacking for what some media have already labeled the “no fun Olympics.”
According to an Ipsos global poll, only 46% of respondents in 28 countries said they were interested in the Tokyo Olympics. Many think the event shouldn’t be held at all. Only 33% of Japanese support holding the games, according to a poll by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Underlying it all is worry the Games will serve as a super-spreader event in Tokyo, which remains in a state of emergency after a spike in COVID-19 cases. Already three Olympic athletes have tested positive for the virus, prompting a wave of negative headlines.
The real competition: COVID
Some suggest the COVID-19 situation may even garner more attention than the athletic competition.
“Forget standings for medals. It’s gonna be the COVID rankings at Tokyo Olympics,” tweeted Stephen Wade, who is covering the Games for the Associated Press.
As with many Olympics, discontent has dominated the leadup to the event.
Besides the early infections, there are reports that athletes, staff, and journalists have broken out of their protective bubbles. There are also small but angry protests by locals opposed to the Games.
Major sponsors are also shying away from the games. Toyota Motor Corporation, one of Japan’s most recognizable brands, announced it will not air Olympic-themed television advertisements in Japan and that its top officials will not attend the opening ceremony.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Alessandro Libri, a Tokyo-based correspondent for Italy’s ANSA news agency, told VOA. “Every Olympics also brings some critical voices … but obviously we are on a different level now, with just three or four days to go.”
Organizers hope that once the competition begins, the attention will shift away from the pandemic. But that may be difficult, especially when journalists have restricted access to athletes because of COVID-19 protocols.
“We’re not going to be allowed to get close to them, to get to know them, to get to know their personal stories, which is what the Olympics is all about,” said Jack Tarrant, another freelance journalist based in Tokyo. “Instead, it’s going to be very formulaic — it’s going to be video conference interviews.”
Will online interaction work?
To create more connections with viewers, organizers are relying on technology. Fans will be able to post five-second video selfies that will appear on giant screens in the stands. They can also click “cheer” online and have their digital applause appear on broadcasts and video boards in-stadium. Athletes who finish their competition will be able to interact with friends and family back home via video messaging.
But those tools have already been tried in sports leagues across the world — and have often failed, says Tarrant.
“It hasn’t really worked. You can’t replicate what it’s like in a full stadium with people,” he said. “It’s nowhere near the same.”
The Olympics may find it even harder to generate fan interest, since many events feature relatively unknown athletes who do not have hardcore fans.
“Lots of people who watch the Olympics are viewing it very casually and are therefore probably going to be less than impressed watching it in empty venues where it’s going to appear a little bit flat,” Tarrant said.
Bits and bytes
However, some are excited about other technology to be unveiled during Olympic broadcasts, including 360-degree cameras, which will provide three-dimensional replays for basketball games, and the use of biometric data, which will allow viewers to see athletes’ heartbeat variations or adrenaline rushes for certain events.
“I think this time more than ever the Olympics will be experienced in a hybrid space, comprised of atoms and molecules as well as bits and bytes,” says Scott Campbell, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan.
Major telecom providers around the world have long promised that 5G technology will enable more immersive fan experiences through virtual and artificial realities, says Campbell.
“I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, but I imagine there will be some exciting attempts and glimpses into new things to come,” he says.
Hang your own medals
But other traditional aspects will be notably absent.
Tokyo has scrapped the Olympic torch relay, replacing it with private flame-lighting ceremonies streamed online.
Perhaps most awkward of all: victorious athletes will not have their medals placed around the neck. Instead, the medals will be presented on a tray, from which athletes will take them and then hang around their own necks.
The most normal part of the Olympics could be the opening ceremony, which will likely include familiar elements such as the Parade of Nations, high-profile musical performances, and pyrotechnics.
But even that event will look different. Only 1,000 VIPs are expected to attend the ceremony, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency. That means the vast majority of the 68,000 seats will lie empty in the $1.4 billion Olympic Stadium, which was built with this very event in mind.
“It’s a shame,” says Libri. “The Japanese are obviously very well organized. But to recreate this missing Olympic spirit, which is the essence of every game, is going to be very difficult.”