Susan Egelstaff: I adored my fan support experience at Olympics – Tokyo 2020 athletes will miss full house

THOUSANDS of people chanting my name, I had never felt anything like it, and I never will again.

It was nine years ago when I competed in the Olympics and, as I think most Olympians will agree, it’s a unique experience. 

I remember how I felt getting selected, and then going to the kitting-out day, where we received our bodyweight in gear. 

In the weeks beforehand, you couldn’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without being bombarded with Olympic updates. It helped that it was a home Games; the excitement in the country as London 2012 approached was unprecedented.

The Games themselves were stunning. From moving into the Athletes’ Village to mixing with the superstars of sport who were also residents, it was thrilling.

And then there was the sport itself.

The badminton event was held at Wembley Arena and every ticket was sold. In case you are wondering, playing in a full stadium is not a common occurrence for a British badminton player.

Competing in an atmosphere created by the thousands of people supporting me was incredible. Unforgettable.

It was one of, if not the biggest factor in making the Olympic experience so special.

Which brings me to the Tokyo Olympics. In less than two weeks, the Opening Ceremony will mark the beginning of the Games, a year on from the original dates.

Last week, it was announced there would be no fans allowed to watch the events. Every stadium, arena and even road course will be empty.

Japan’s prime minister has placed the country in a state of emergency amid the rising Covid cases, coupled with a slow vaccine rollout, and as a result crowds are largely barred from the Games.

This changes entirely the Olympics for the athletes. 

For the majority of sports, my own included, the Olympic Games is that rare occurrence which sees thousands of people packing the stands. It goes from raucous cheering to complete silence as the action is about to start. Competing in that kind of atmosphere makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s what makes the thousands of hours of exhausting training all worth it. It’s that atmosphere that makes the Games so unique.  

That will not be there in Japan.  The silence in venues will be deafening. There will be a smattering of noise from the coaches, officials and media who are permitted entry. But their presence will only serve to heighten the depressing atmosphere caused by the empty stands.

Certainly, for the Games to go ahead, this is the only solution. Full stadiums would be inexcusable.

But appreciating the reason for it doesn’t mean the athletes won’t be acutely aware of what is missing.

The empty stands will detract hugely from the athletes’ experience. For many, this will be their only taste of the Olympics and it will be greatly diminished as a result of the restrictions. That is unavoidable; having a “normal” Olympic experience this summer is out of the question.

When the Opening Ceremony marks the start of the Tokyo Games a week on Friday, I’m certain my mind will drift to my own experience. 

And I will feel huge sympathy that these athletes will not, and now may never, experience what the Olympics is all about.

AND ANOTHER THING…

Naomi OSAKA may not have hit a tennis ball in anger this Wimbledon fortnight but that has not prevented her from grabbing a few headlines.

The Japanese four-time Grand Slam champion was, of course, absent from the All England Club as she continued her break from the game for mental health issues.

Last week, Osaka wrote a piece in Time Magazine further explaining her position and detailing her hopes for the treatment of athletes, and the concern given to their mental health.

“In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” she wrote. “Athletes are humans. Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions.

“I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones. I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again. So I ask the press for some level of privacy and empathy next time we meet.”

Certainly Osaka’s withdrawal prompted much discussion about her mental health and, more worryingly, whether she had any justification for feeling as she did.

I was one of the many who said that media commitments are part and parcel of being an athlete and refusing entirely to undertake them is, hopefully not, the way forward for the majority.

Having said that however, it does not mean there isn’t a better way of doing things than the current system.

I maintain most journalists are not out to get athletes. Most are  sympathetic to the feelings of their interview subjects.

So the bad experiences, for most sportspeople, are few and far between.

Osaka may not have come up with the perfect
solution yet, but she has started a conversation that will, it is hoped, work better for both athletes and media alike

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