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Post-pandemic Paris Olympics signal return to ‘normal’ for athletes and fans

Any athlete with Olympic dreams knows the feeling of lungs burning, arms and legs turning to jelly, as they near the closing moments of another grueling race or excruciatingly close match. For that last shot of adrenaline, they often tap into the energy provided by the roaring crowd.

At the last two Olympics, one summer, one winter, that crowd did not exist due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Paris this summer, once again, all those fans, family members and the burst of energy they bring to all the fun and games will be back.

The Paris Games will celebrate the return to “normal” after a stretch when host cities turned into closed-off shells of themselves, depriving those who had earned their way inside the so-called Olympic “bubble” of a true Olympic experience.

“I had a lot of athletes tell me that Tokyo was one of their worst Games,” said American skateboarder Jagger Eaton, who made his Olympic debut in 2021 and will return this year. “And I was like, ‘I love it here.’ I didn’t know any better.”

No more masks

Eaton and hundreds more returning Olympians will no longer have to wear masks, submit to daily swabs up the nose or spit into plastic tubes to detect signs of COVID. Separated groups of COVID “cohorts” and quarantines for those suspected of carrying the virus are also a thing of the past.

“I heard horror stories, a lot of horror stories,” said Paralympic sitting volleyball player Nicki Nieves, whose trip was cancelled when she tested positive for COVID three days before the team left for Tokyo. “I’m excited we’re getting the fans back.”

Returning Olympians won’t have to wear masks in Paris, submit to daily swabs up the nose or spit into plastic tubes to detect signs of COVID-19. (Delly Carr/Swimming Australia via Getty Images/File)

No more empty seats

At the Winter Games in China two years ago, hundreds of fans were bused five hours away to the action-sports venue to watch snowboarders while banging together noisy “thundersticks” and wearing masks in the 0-degree chill. Almost no fans living outside China could attend.

The year before at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the spectators were mostly coaches, officials and volunteers, and they filled only a small fraction of the seats.

When Marcell Jacobs of Italy earned the title of “World’s Fastest Man” by winning the 100 meters, you could hear his celebratory shouts echoing across the near-empty 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium. It was a far cry from the stadium-wide, selfie-taking reggae-fests that broke out in years past when Usain Bolt worked the crowds after crossing the line first.

Hours after the finish in the 100, members of the Italian media joined Jacobs and his teammate, gold-medal high jumper Gianmarco Tamberi, on the track to take part in a celebration that would’ve normally included hundreds of friends and relatives.

“The stadium was super, I guess, quiet and just a little bit empty,” said American Paralympic sprinter and long jumper Jaleen Roberts, who encountered similar conditions a few weeks after the Olympics. “It also kind of helped with the nerves a little bit. But I’m excited for what will be a different kind of adrenaline with people in the stands.”

Beaming American Para sprinter Jaleen Roberts crosses the finish line with her right arm raised and looking to an empty crowd following the women's T37 100 metres at the Tokyo Paralympics on Sept. 2, 2021.
Beaming Para sprinter Jaleen Roberts of the United States crosses the finish line in the women’s T37 100 metres at an empty Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Sept. 2, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/File)

For decades, athletes have told stories about how having fans in the stands have helped them push to the finish. Rower Michelle Sechser calls the final 250 meters of her race, with the fans roaring from the grandstand, “the final crescendo of the sprint.”

“When it’s time to hit the sprint for the race, knowing that roar of the crowd will be there — it’s always extra motivation when you hear them,” Sechser said.

Fun off the field

Once the action is over, one rite of passage for Olympic athletes is going to other venues to cheer on friends in other sports. That will be back in Paris. Same with the camaraderie and, yes, sometimes debauchery that goes along with living in, and celebrating in, the athletes’ village.

I almost get choked up thinking about it because my parents are the two people that have seen me from Day 1 when I first put an oar into my hand.— American rower Michelle Sechser on having friends and family at the Paris Olympics

“I grew up hearing you got like a swag bag and you get free McDonald’s the whole time,” U.S. canoeist Evy Leibfarth said. “And I’m not, like, a big fast-food girl, but I’m excited for that. Apparently, the line is huge.”

When Egg McMuffins get old, Paris is a city with a coffee shop on virtually every corner and a tourist site at virtually every Metro stop. Instead of flying back home a day or two after their events are over, athletes can visit the Eiffel Tower or Palace of Versailles.

They’ll have friends and family to travel with, too.

“I almost get choked up thinking about it because my parents are the two people that have seen me from Day 1 when I first put an oar into my hand,” Sechser said. “I’m so excited to have my mom and dad there watching, to know that if there is a special moment at the end of the race, they’ll be there for it.”

Big opening ceremony

As if to accentuate the fact that the party is back on, Paris has planned a first-of-its-kind opening ceremony down the Seine River. The parade of nations and most of their athletes will travel in a flotilla down the river that snakes through the heart of the city.

Organizers say 326,000 tickets for seats overlooking the river will be available for what will be the largest opening of an Olympics in history.

All part a celebration with friends, family and fans that, to many of these athletes, feels very much overdue.

“I personally feed off the fans and I love having people there,” U.S. rugby player Ilona Maher said, “because that’s the reason that we play.”

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