The Olympic stadium buzzes as the finalists in the 100 metres take their places behind their blocks.
The crowd goes dead silent as the starter says: “On your mark,” then the deafening roar of the crowd at the blast of the gun.
There’s no auditory experience quite like the Olympic Games 100-metre final.
Some sports are cautiously resuming amid COVID-19, but with no fans permitted in stadiums, they’re being held either in near-silence or amid artificial noise. Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the Tokyo Games’ organizing committee, has acknowledged that there have been discussions of potentially holding next year’s Olympics without fans, particularly if there’s no vaccine for the coronavirus.
Donovan Bailey finds it tough to wrap his head around.
“There’s never been an Olympic final since 1896, since the start of the Olympic Games, where the fans have not been packed to the rafters — ever. So I can’t even imagine that,” said Canada’s 100-metre Olympic gold-medalist.
Three-time Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse will get a taste of it on July 9, when he races the seldom-run 100-yard dash at the Inspiration Games. Organized by Weltklasse Zurich, races will be held in Florida, California and Zurich.
“I’ll see what that’s like,” De Grasse said. “If [the Olympics] come to that, I would just have to get my mind right, be mentally focused, and try not to think of it in a weird way I guess — go about it as if it’s normal.”
Oslo played host to the Impossible Games last weekend to replace its annual Diamond League meet. Cardboard cutouts of fans filled the seats. Korean professional baseball has been doing the same.
Sportscaster Mark Lee said he can’t imagine the Olympic 100 metres — the race to be the world’s fastest man — held in an empty stadium.
“The gun goes off, and all you can hear are the faint taps of feet on the track. And then it’s over,” said Lee, who called the Olympic 100 finals in 2008 and 2016. “It’d be kind of vacuous and clinical.”
The 25-year-old De Grasse, who should be a medal favourite in Tokyo, feeds off the crowd.
“I’m a little nervous [at the start], but I’m excited as well to compete, definitely I’m a person who likes the cheers, it gets me pumped up and the adrenalin going.”
Bailey, who captured gold at the world championships 25 years ago, and then raced to victory a year later at the Atlanta Olympics, compares the crowd to what basketball players call their “sixth man.”
“It’s the only event, and the only time in the world, where the entire globe gets to be quiet and pay attention to 10 seconds,” Bailey said. “And you want to be in that vortex, you want to be in a place where there’s that hum, that buzz off the crowd.”
The 52-year-old from Oakville, Ont., likes to say he thought of the starting blocks as his living room.
“When you’re demanding the very best of your body, elevating yourself at 10 times the torque of what your body can handle coming out of the blocks, you have to be at your most comfortable,” Bailey said. “I always describe it as the place where I go, I have my shorts and I’m watching TV, and trying to find my favourite show.
“You have to be at your most comfortable.”
Bailey recalls entering Centennial Olympic Stadium from the tunnel. He was so focused, the crowd of 85,000 looked like a “massive, abstract, flat painting of people.”
But when he crossed the finish line, looking sideways, his face stretched into a wide smile that would become one of track and field’s iconic photos, he soaked in the deafening roar.
What if there’d been no fans, only the TV cameras to capture his reaction?
“It’s not the same, is it?” he said. “You go across the line, there’s the crowds, there’s flags waving, people are cheering, people are crying. It’s a different kind of emotion when you finish.”
Lee said from a broadcaster’s perspective, there’s nothing like calling an Olympic 100-metre race. Eight runners lining up for a race that will likely define their lives, all in about 10 seconds.
“My heart is racing, everything is tingling because of the crowd,” Lee said. “The 100 final is the blue-ribbon event in track and field, the race to decide the fastest human on the planet, there’s a spectre about that, it’s theatre, it’s a performance as much as a foot race.
“As an announcer, you have the lane introductions, with the roar of the crowd for each athlete as they preen and posture. And then the starter calls them into the blocks, all that buzz of anticipation, it falls into an absolute hush and then tension is so palpable. Then the gun goes off and the sprinters bolt out of their blocks and there’s this release of energy, this explosion of energy and sound.”
De Grasse said he could race in an empty stadium. He figures it would be like training, where there’s obviously no-one watching, and compared it to the world championships last year in Doha, which drew a disappointingly small crowd, even for the marquee 100 final.
The empty seats, however, were barely noticeable. The meet featured a flashy light show never before seen at a global track and field event.
“They’re announcing your name and you can hear the music playing and these huge lights are flashing, that pumps you up as well, gets you in the zone, so if [Tokyo] could do something like that ...” said De Grasse, who rebounded from two injury-plagued seasons to capture silver in the 200 and bronze in the 100 in Doha.
“I was watching my race on the replay on YouTube, to see the light show, it was cool.”
Fans have been divided by the artificial fan noise at recent sports event. TV networks layered crowd noise over the broadcasts of English Premier League and German Bundesliga games.
The Athletic reported earlier this month that the NBA has discussed the possibility of using audio from the NBA 2K video games to enliven its own broadcasts if the league resumes play next month in Florida.
De Grasse, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., will line up against training partners Omar McLeod and Jimmy Vicaut in the Inspiration Games 100-yard race. The exhibition event will also feature stars Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Allyson Felix and Mujinga Kambundji.