Is having no foreign fans a real advantage for Japanese athletes?

Will the Japanese only crowd really impact the results of the Olympics and Paralympics?

So you’ve all probably heard about the decision that was made late last month regarding restricting foreigners at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. After a couple weeks of rumours circulating that a decision had been made internally regarding barring the entry of foreign spectators and volunteers, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee released a statement on their website on March 20th to make it official. The statement essentially summed up their reasons for said decision, while showing ticket buyers a method for a refund.

Crowds at London 2012. Photo via: Youtube.com

While by the time the decision was made public it was hardly a surprise, the disappointment from thousands of volunteers and fans was almost palpable online. It’s hard to dispute that this was ultimately the correct decision to be able to actually host the games, but there are many who criticize this decision. Comments have ranged drastically from those who believe the games should not have any fans at all, to those citing xenophobia of Japan as the “actual reason”. While some of these certainly have merits, it seems that there will ultimately be Japanese fans in attendance.

With the games seemingly a full go at this point, and the answer regarding foreign fans and volunteer being answered, many further questions have been raised. One that I find being asked is the potential effect that an all Japanese crowd may have on the outcome. Will this create an even more favourable environment for the Japanese athletes than the usual homefield advantage? On the surface level it appears that the answer is a resounding yes, and my initial reaction was the same. However, after stepping back and analyzing it, you see it may not be as impactful as you may believe. Here’s why.

Clap Along

Despite the ongoing pandemic, currently there are other sporting events that are happening in Japan. The Grand Sumo tournaments, the Nippon Baseball League (NPB) and other domestic sports leagues have continued to operate since the pandemic began. While during the initial outbreak, many sports halted completely or continued with no crowds, things have changed since. In these sporting events crowds were reintroduced as early as last September, with the NPB allowing up to 5000 fans in attendance. While the crowds back at the sporting venues certainly give some life back to the live broadcasts, it is not like what we saw at the Texas Rangers’ opening day. There are many new rules.

Tokyo 2020’s test event in November of last year. Photo via: Japantimaes.co.jp

Like these other sports, the Tokyo 2020 games have had to adapt, and released a pandemic protocol in early February. Besides the obvious of social distancing and masks, the most noticeable is the rule of no cheering or chanting. While Japanese fans may be rather tame compared to other countries’ fans, they are no less vocal. This rule is to limit the spread of airborne transmission and calls for fans to show support through only claps. This will certainly give the games a different feel than what we have come accustomed to.

While that may be bad for the atmosphere in some respects, it also means that verbal support is limited, giving less of a boost to Japanese natives. It has also been noted in local media here, that Japanese fans need to show etiquette and politeness by also clapping for foreign athletes. I’m sure this won’t be an issue, as the crowd will certainly react accordingly to athletes’ performances.

Pre-pandemic Ticket Sales

Before the pandemic, the ticket sales for Tokyo 2020, were astronomical. They were one of the most sought after tickets and had 56 million requests in Japan alone. Due to this high demand, a lottery system was set in place, and they sold roughly 4.5 million from these two separate lotteries. Keep in mind, there was only 7.8 million tickets in total in the first place.

Copies of Tokyo 2020 tickets. Photo via: www.insidethegames.biz

Of the 7.8 million available tickets, roughly 2.3 million were rumoured to be reserved for sales abroad. That means that less than 30% of the crowd would have been foreigners, assuming these numbers are correct. While the pockets of loyal nations’ fans of are certainly a boost to the morale of athletes, these groups would have been more limited than usual anyways for a number of reasons.

Sport Dependent: Team Sports vs Individual

What kind of sport has to be mentioned as it is very relevant as well. Obviously when people think of Olympic and Paralympic fans, they may think of large signs, flags cheering and yelling. But in reality, quite a few events don’t actually allow for that kind of reactions most of the time. Others, due to the nature of the sport (i.e marathon and biking) , don’t really allow for the audience to impact the races for the most part. While the crowd certainly has roles in them, their overall impact compared to lets say a baseball game seems minimal.

It seems that in team events are more heavily impacted overall. As with the aforementioned baseball, strategic moments to be loud or quite can absolutely impact a game. I’m not refuting this could play a role to support the Japanese national teams, but most of the games won’t actually feature them. So for instance, if Mexico and Sweden play for instance, it seems like it would be a level playing field, no?

Every Athlete Is Different

Finally we need to talk about the differences among athletes and their mentality. This was a topic of conversation about last years NBA season, throughout the NBA “bubble season”. It’s the thought that some athletes actually perform better under less pressure due to the lack of fans.

I’m sure you can find Lebron haters out there that firmly believe that the Lakers wouldn’t have won the title without the bubble. While I personally don’t think this to be true, we can’t discount the legitimacy of the thought, that athletes can perform better in front of less audience members. People like to think that the champions of sports thrive off the energy of the crowd, and while for some that is certainly true, others may feel more focused at a tamed version of the competition.

LeBron James #6, at the Air Canada Centre on February 16, 2011 in Toronto, Canada. Photo via: dreamstimes.com

These are just some of my thoughts on the true impact that an all Japanese audience may provide. While it may appear that the crowd will absolutely have an impact on the results, if you take a step back and look, it may not be so clear cut. Of course I’m not an athlete competing at this absurdly high level, so I’m always open to here people’s opinion and if I’m way off base or not.

If you wish to contact me, you can reach me at Shotarohmoore@hotmail.com

A writer living in Japan. Creating articles about the 2020 Tokyo Games. A regular contributor to Junkture Magazine. https://www.junkturemagazine.com