Pandemic Olympics without the crowds: What happens?

Sporting events are, at their core, shows. The actors are the stars of the show, performing for us all.

Pandemic Olympics without the crowds: What happens?

The audience is riveted as they watch from their seats. It has, at the very least, the "home" audience. This audience has grown in number to over a half-century and has outpaced those who actually attend.

The Tokyo Olympics, at their halfway point are still struggling with the fact the middle group, those who cheer, gin up excitement and add texture to proceedings, couldn't make it. In the COVID era, there is a crucial question: Did an Olympics fall in the forest, and no one hears it?

Seiko Hashimoto (president of the Japan organizing committee) believes it will. A couple of weeks ago, she stated that she was not concerned that a closed-down, crowdless Olympics -- which she refers to as the "Tokyo model", would fundamentally alter the experience. Hashimoto stated that the essence of the Games "will remain the exact same."

Of course they won't. They aren't. They don't.

During the 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, the relationship between the watched and the watchers in audience-based public events has shifted tectonically. Productions that normally happen in front of crowds -- crowds that, it's worth noting, both watch performances and sometimes become an integral part of them -- have changed in various ways.

Some entertainment venues started to present performances in parked cars to their customers, similar to drive-in movies. Erica Rhodes, one of the comedians, shot a TV special in California outside the Rose Bowl and relied on her audience's response to the honking horns. It gave off a cacophonous energy, but it added a dynamic element.

The iconic game show "The Price Is Right" is now on TV. Its fundamental DNA depends on viewers "come on down!" to become contestants. The show was shut down for six years and then returned with almost empty seats and contestants who weren't surprised to win.

Sports, however, are the most affected when it comes to fan interaction.

Last summer, once big league baseball resumed without fans in the seats, the sport deployed recorded, piped-in crowd noise for the benefit of both athletes and fans watching at home. Many ballparks created cardboard figures to imitate spectator action. This was a unique, but not so funny, pivot.

However, it was part of a cultural landscape which has been in construction for a while.

Sixty years ago, Daniel J. Boorstin, a historian who became the Librarian of Congress, came up with a term: the "pseudo-event." Among its traits: It is not spontaneous, but planned. It was created for reproduction. Its success is measured by how often it is shared and how many people view it.

These staggering figures are paired with this astonishing statistic: 75% of the International Olympic Committee's income comes from the sale and rental of broadcast rights. Around 40% of the IOC’s total income comes from one source: NBC, the U.S. broadcast right-holder. According to estimates, the IOC could have lost $3 billion to $4B by cancelling the Tokyo Olympics.

Those numbers speak one thing. Despite all the attention paid to athletes and their achievements, this event was meant to be seen. And, more importantly, it was made to attract people from other parts of the world.

"The economics is not the audience in the venue." The media is the economics," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

This was a popular axiom in late 20th-century America, and it is still a common one today. However, there is another question: Does the absence of crowds at home affect the quality of at-home viewing.

One hand, your recliner's vantage point is better than any you can see in person. A NBC camera can see more than any ticket to an Olympic venue. Thompson states, "We are not just in the best seats, we're also in seats that don’t exist."

Yet,...

Crowds serve a purpose beyond their impact on performers and athletes who are there. Research shows that spectators at home who watch competition and other entertainment have the impression that they are proxies of those in the arena. In effect, this means that even if we aren't able to be there, we know others who are.

There's a reason sitcoms include laugh tracks. Seeing and hearing other people enjoy a thing leads us to enjoy that thing," says Jennifer Talarico, a professor of psychology at Lafayette College who studies how people remember personally experienced events.

Laugh tracks have been around since the dawn of TV and were used to help people know when to laugh. But the underlying message is deeper: If we know others are watching and being entertained, it paves the way for our entertainment. That bears out today in the popularity of YouTube videos showing gamers as they game, and in shows like Britain's "Gogglebox," in which TV audiences watch ... TV audiences watching TV.

There is also the emotion and pathos. The American Olympic TV narratives are often interwoven with crowd shots, which include the supporters who were there to witness the triumphs.

Talarico states, "That doesn’t carry through when it can’t pan through to Momma in the crowd." "Mom's not there. She is still at the same place she was before. This makes the Olympics more powerful than major league baseball games.

There are a few things that can mitigate Tokyo's empty seats at these Games. Social media helps to fill in the gaps. Instead of just watching, we can now create our own.

It's not the same. Young boys playing in driveway basketball are known to stop after each shot and shout "He shoots, He scores!" before putting their hands on their mouths to mimic a crowd's cheer. It's hard to find anything like it.

Television cameras are able to see clearly that something is missing from various Olympic venues. They can even find empty seats or seats that have been painted in random, drab colors so that it looks like there are people inside.

Three simple words, "I Was There", still have power in an era of screens, vicarious viewing, and global live broadcasts.

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