Michael Houston

It felt as if 2021 would be the year that sport would resume and a bumper crowd could celebrate the long-awaited Tokyo 2020 Olympics, yet we find ourselves less than three months away still unsure exactly what is going on.

What we do know is foreign spectators will not be allowed to travel to the Games and crowds will come from Japan instead, or so it seems.

Because Japan's hot and cold approach to COVID-19 - which has rightly led to criticism from the public much like other nations with the same approach - could even jeopardise those plans too.

Yesterday, Japan had a new daily death high of 145, with Tokyo being the most affected in the country - something you would expect from the largest city in the world.

Meanwhile, daily cases are surpassing 6,000 - a figure that has not been reached since January.

It took two months to get daily cases down below 1,000 a day, but that could always be quicker and lower with an effective COVID-19 vaccination programme.

Tokyo 2020 is set to be held with only domestic spectators ©Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 is set to be held with only domestic spectators ©Getty Images

Unfortunately, the cautious Japanese have only fully vaccinated 0.9 per cent of its population, compared to a third of all Americans and around a quarter of Britons.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated he is confident the country can roll out a million doses a day - meaning 500,000 people a day would be fully vaccinated.

That projection will still take seven months to complete - which means that even half of the population might still need vaccinating by the time the Paralympics start.

Test events to be held this month so far have taken place without spectators, including in the less-affected area of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido for the marathon test event.

According to the Mainichi Daily, Tokyo 2020 organisers will not make a decision on the number of spectators at the Games until next month and this delay raises the issue of how many fans will be in attendance for the Games.

The Tokyo 2020 marathon test event was held without spectators ©Getty Images
The Tokyo 2020 marathon test event was held without spectators ©Getty Images

What the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is fans are necessary to sport as a whole - not just as a financial commodity, but as a part of what makes the special moments so special.

When French judoka Teddy Riner lost his winning streak after 154 straight victories in February 2020, the crowd went into a deafening silence.

The same applies to every last-minute winner in football, including Sergio Aguero's goal in the 94th minute, sealing Manchester City their first English top flight title in over 40 years with a 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers.

That magic has largely been lost without the reaction of spectators.

Tennis is largely silent during play, but the players do feed off the reaction of the crowd following a point. 

The 2021 Australian Open was a unique experience for players, with a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne leading to a five-day lockdown in the state of Victoria, meaning athletes went from competing in front of crowds to empty arenas overnight.

"It would have been tough for me, I think, playing with no crowd, especially next match," said Australian Nick Kyrgios on the announcement of the spectator showdown.

"For me personally I think sports is entertainment at the end of the day, and I want to be able to play in front of full crowds around the world." 

This was while Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas seemed rather unfazed, stressing it was just a mental game.

"Something that changes in atmosphere during the tournament, it’s not easy," added Russian and eventual men's singles finalist Daniil Medvedev.

Elina Svitolina mentioned it was "a bit disturbing" going from fans in the arena to empty stadiums overnight at the Australian Open ©Getty Images
Elina Svitolina mentioned it was "a bit disturbing" going from fans in the arena to empty stadiums overnight at the Australian Open ©Getty Images

Ukraine's Elina Svitolina called the silence "a bit disturbing" while Australia's Ashleigh Barty said it did not affect the way she played.

In the Premier League, my beloved West Ham United are chasing a Champions League spot after flirting with relegation the season before - and it probably helps that fans are not in attendance to sing "and like my dreams they fade and die."

Inversely, Celtic usually play at home to 60,000 fans and likely require a bit of fan verbal abuse/feedback in person, with the club dropping 14 points at home this season compared to just four two years ago - at a stadium that has been long regarded as a fortress, even on the European stage.

German giants Borussia Dortmund have seen their win rate plummet from 82 per cent two years ago during the last full season with supporters to 46.2 per cent from April 2020 to January 2021, according to a study from the International Centre for Sports Studies.

So the "12th man" is somewhat missing to give clubs a bit of a boot up the backside.

Golfer Jordan Spieth cheekily mentioned that no fans were able to stop wayward shots going into the woods during the pandemic - although it is not known what is more advantageous - spectators acting as a barrier for golf balls or the absence of drunk hecklers.

In athletics, plenty of events factor around the crowd - particularly the rhythmic clapping for the jumping events that can give athletes a mental boost.

Athletics fans are also sorely missing the roar of the crowd when the bell rings for the last lap, or when moves are made going into the final straight - watching Sir Mo Farah's heroics at London 2012 felt like a wall of noise as he crossed the line for the gold medal.

When it comes to the Olympics, the magic behind the Games comes through the fans and without them in attendance, will we see some athletes who like to feed off a vibrant crowd falter?

And will we see some athletes prevail with gold, after cool as ice performances?

Most Olympic sports are reliant on great athleticism, but a self-reliant mental state might be the difference between gold and silver in Tokyo if the buzz of the crowd is just a gentle hum.