“Just getting to perform is thrilling” — Scarcity of spectators doesn’t bother Olympic athletes

Athletes are so focused on competing that they don’t worry about crowd size. After all, friends and family at home are watching

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2022 Beijing Olympics - Curling - Women's Bronze Medal Game - Sweden v Switzerland - National Aquatics Center, Beijing, China - February 19, 2022. Skip Anna Hasselborg of Sweden, Vice Sara McManus of Sweden, Agnes Knochenhauer of Sweden, Sofia Mabergs of Sweden and Johanna Heldin of Sweden celebrate winning bronze. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
2022 Beijing Olympics - Curling - Women's Bronze Medal Game - Sweden v Switzerland - National Aquatics Center, Beijing, China - February 19, 2022. Skip Anna Hasselborg of Sweden, Vice Sara McManus of Sweden, Agnes Knochenhauer of Sweden, Sofia Mabergs of Sweden and Johanna Heldin of Sweden celebrate winning bronze. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

BEIJING — Olympic athletes have gotten used to the pandemic pall, the silence of the empty seats.

While there’s a smattering of audience members at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games venues — with organizers Saturday announcing a total of 90,000 so far — they are a far cry from the full house that greeted Team USA figure skater Jason Brown eight years ago at the Sochi Games.

“We’ve had two years to kind of adjust to it in a way,” Brown said.

Still, the Look of the Games makes up for the look of the nearly vacant arena.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Figure Skating - Men Single Skating - Free Skating - Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing, China - February 10, 2022. Jason Brown of the United States in action. REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel
2022 Beijing Olympics - Figure Skating - Men Single Skating - Free Skating - Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing, China - February 10, 2022. Jason Brown of the United States in action. REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

“There’s a different excitement and hype when you get to skate over the (Olympic) rings and see rings everywhere,” Brown said. “And there’s a sense of just gratitude to be at the Games and to be able to compete. We’ve all been through so much in the last two years and so much uncertainty. So just getting to perform is thrilling. And I’m just so grateful for that.”

He’s also grateful that his friends and family at home can see him compete, since the cameras are always watching.

And the Beijing Games at least have some spectators, compared to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics where there were none. That was particularly glaring in the cavernous Olympic Stadium, where American sprinter Noah Lyles won the bronze medal in the 200m. He ran a faster time after the Games and attributed that to having an audience.

Birk Rudd of Norway, who won the Olympic gold medal in freestyle skiing Big Air, was just happy he could show his tricks — no matter who was there at the former Shougang industrial park to see him.

Mar 10, 2021; Aspen, Colorado, USA;  Birk Rudd of Norway during Freeski Halfpipe qualifications Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 10, 2021; Aspen, Colorado, USA; Birk Rudd of Norway during Freeski Halfpipe qualifications Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

“As long as I can have fun and enjoy and be in the moment, there is nothing that can really stop me,” he said. “Everything is pretty much mental, the way I look at things. I look at it as another competition or another opportunity to show my skiing and do the tricks I want to do, that makes it a little more chill.”

John Shuster, a five-time Olympian and one of the Team USA flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony was simply glad to see some faces, even if he only sees half of them above their masks. Athletes are excused from covering up when they are actually competing.

“Having anybody in here and curling with masks off is awesome,” said Shuster, the 2018 gold medalist whose team lost in the bronze medal game here. “Honestly just to be in an arena where there are people in there and playing together is great.”

2022 Beijing Olympics - Curling - Men's Bronze Medal Game - Canada v United States - National Aquatics Center, Beijing, China - February 18, 2022. Skip John Shuster of the United States and Skip Brad Gushue of Canada watch the play. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
2022 Beijing Olympics - Curling - Men's Bronze Medal Game - Canada v United States - National Aquatics Center, Beijing, China - February 18, 2022. Skip John Shuster of the United States and Skip Brad Gushue of Canada watch the play. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

But does it feel like the Olympics?

“It 100 percent feels like the Olympics! Shuster said. “It’s a bummer not to have face-to-face interactions with people, obviously that’s something that I love doing. But at the same point, this is the Olympic Games. We’ve been having a blast watching games — we went to short-track speedskating and a women’s hockey game, so we have been taking in the Olympics and to have that opportunity is something which we’re grateful for.”

Even before “bubble” became the operative word for COVID-19 countermeasures, Olympic athletes have been sequestered in the Olympic Village, which the public can’t access. The only difference is this time they can’t access the public.

Zhang Jiandong, a top Beijing 2022 official, said organizers were determined to make the Olympic Village, “a safe, cozy and comfortable environment.”

Danish speedskater Viktor Hald Thorup said he considered himself fortunate that he “managed to qualify for the Winter Olympics and the athletes’ village is a big plus to me.”

“Robots deliver food and roast duck and dumplings, traditional Chinese foods,” have been popular.

Shen Qianfan, director-general of the village planning and operation department, said the entertainment center is over 1,000 square meters.

“There is foosball and billiards,” he said. “We also have very high-tech entertainment facilities, for example a 4D deep-sea simulator and a spaceship cabin simulator, so the entertainment choice is very rich.”

A view of Yanqing National Sliding Centre and Yanqing Olympic Village ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A view of Yanqing National Sliding Centre and Yanqing Olympic Village ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“The village is state of the art,” said Brian O’Neill, an American hockey player who competed in PyeongChang. “They’ve done a great job with that. No complaints there. I think from an experience standpoint it’s definitely a little bit different, but then again, guys have been able to go to some events and once the hockey starts you’re pretty much going from your room back to the rink.”

The Team USA speedskater is so focused she doesn’t even notice the cheering of the crowd — or lack of cheering.

“I can’t hear anything when I’m skating, I’m so dialed in,” said Bowe, who won the bronze medal in the women’s 1000m. “Even when my name’s announced, I really don’t hear anything. My coach is standing right on the backstretch, maybe two feet from me yelling, I don’t even hear him. I’m so in the zone and dialed in that it’s almost dark everywhere except right in front of me.”

And that never changes, no matter how many spectators there are.

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