When the announcement came, my thoughts went to Martha Ruether.

The paralympic swimmer from Allegany, who qualified for the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympic Games next month in Tokyo, had already experienced the Rio de Janeiro  Olympiad five years earlier.

And, in a two-part series in this space last month, she lamented Japan putting restrictions on spectators at the Games.

 “Fan-wise that’s a little bit of a bummer, they’re not allowed to cheer, all they can do is clap, so that will be different because the Rio crowds were so energetic,” she recalled.

By then, it became clear that Japan’s population, losing its battle with Covid-19’s variants in scary numbers, wasn’t particularly excited about an invasion of athletes from hundreds of foreign countries.

“I feel bad that they’re not exactly jazzed about the games happening,” Ruether admitted. “I heard a statistic that 85% of the Japanese people don’t want the Games to happen and, in this day and age, I can understand their fear --  bringing teams from all around the world, vaccinated or not — that (the virus) could spread.

“I’m just glad that I have the opportunity to go. If anything, the quarantine this past year has taught me to take things day-by-day because they could cancel (the Games) tomorrow, you don’t know.”

And, alas, it did get worse.

A week ago, the Tokyo Olympic committee announced that no fans would be allowed to attend the Games.

Thus, Ruether will swim her specialty, the 50-meter freestyle, Aug. 29, and her second-best event, the 100 breaststroke, Sept. 1, in a natatorium with only competitors, coaches and officials on hand. 

 

THE ABLE-BODIED Games begin with opening ceremonies a week from tomorrow and end Aug. 8. The Paralympic event commences 16 days later and concludes Sept. 5.

It’s hard to imagine NBC, which holds the television rights to the Olympics, broadcasting the Games’ spectacular commencement activities before an empty stadium.

It’s also a $1.1 billion investment for the network, which shares coverage with NBCSN (Sports Network) and several cable outlets including USA, CNBC and The Golf Channel.

And while NBC made $250 million in advertising revenue for the Rio Games, it will be interesting to see what impact an Olympiad without fans — despite its 200-plus countries and over 11,000 athletes — will have on advertising revenue.

There was a cautionary tale this year in the United States when NFL, Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA games were broadcast without fans. It translated to lower viewership numbers which, in turn, directly affected sponsorship earnings.

 

BUT WHILE it’s hard to feel sorry for wealthy broadcast entities, the same can’t be said for the athletes.

We’ve become accustomed to competitors declaring they “feed off the crowd?”

To be sure, when the four major pro sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — televised games from empty venues, participants complained of the eerily odd experience of performing in silence.

But there’s more to it.

Cheering crowds, historically, have brought out the best of some athletes … and intimidated others into their worst efforts.

The Bills, in eight 2020 regular-season home games, lamented the absence of the rabid fan base that made a visit to Orchard Park so unpleasant for visiting teams.

And, when only 10 percent of capacity was permitted in then-New Era Field for two playoff games, Buffalo’s players vowed it made a difference in a pair of tense wins.

Of course, when assessing the Bills’ 13-3 season and advance to the AFC Championship Game, there are those who wonder if a lack of fans on the road were a factor in that success.

Some have suggested that the remarkable turnaround by quarterback Josh Allen, who joined the NFL elite, was due in part to the fact he could easily call out audibles and didn’t confront the din that can distract a QB in an opposing stadium.

That’s open to speculation, but what’s certain is that sports events are decidedly more entertaining with fans in attendance, and the Tokyo Olympics are about to experience the opposite.

(Chuck Pollock, an Olean Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)