The Olympic Games are a time to unite the countries of the world in friendly competition, and after more than a year of isolation and quarantine, the Summer Games seem like they should be the perfect event to celebrate what was an otherwise trying year. At least on paper. The reality is that much like 2020, the world is still dealing with unusual circumstances, COVID-19 protocols, and a “new normal” this year. Unfortunately, the Olympic Games are no exception.
Already, history is being made with the run up to the Games, with athletes facing very different conditions than years past. The Tokyo Olympics had committed to being the most environmentally friendly games ever, implementing things like cardboard beds for athletes to sleep on and using recycled materials in everything from the medals and podiums to even the Olympic torch, but because of the pandemic, the Games will also be remembered just as much for the protocols in place to minimize COVID-19 transmission. All of this is set on top of a background of a Japanese population that is largely opposed to the Olympic Games, with upwards of 80% of Japanese citizens against hosting the games.
With all of these factors in mind, this will surely be one of the most unusual Olympic Games ever. Even the idea of athletes performing in empty stadiums will be a bizarre sight, the latest surreal image in an era that brought us pictures of emptied city streets and deserted tourist destinations.
As difficult and different as the Olympic Games will be for athletes, scholars at Florida State University have taken an equal amount of interest. For instance, Dr. Tim Baghurst, director of FSU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Athletic Coaching (FSU COACH), knows that much of the focus will be placed on players, but he will be paying special attention to how coaches perform. “Coaches might be forgotten amidst these many discussion points but are an integral part of an athlete’s success. How they prepare their athletes for the unique mental and physical challenges that this Olympics has provided may be the difference between a podium finish or the four-year wait to try again,” he says.
Dr. Megan Buning, teaching specialist in FSU COACH, also shares an interest in the unique demands of this Olympic Games on both coaches and athletes. While every Olympics has its share of distractions and external factors, Buning points out that athletes “have had to work through the stress created by the pandemic, including sickness, seeing loved ones sick or dying, facilities shut down limiting training options, isolation—which is especially difficult for team sport athletes—as well as restricted training options.” Because of this, the competitors have had to “learn how to be resilient and mentally adaptable more than ever to be able to train at the capacity they need to compete.” The preparation, Buning believes, will lead to an Olympic games that “[showcases] some of the most mentally flexible and resilient athletes and coaches as a whole that we’ve ever seen! If they can apply what they learned from overcoming obstacles this year to their performances, we may see some of the best (and record-breaking) performances yet!”
While Buning and Baghurst will focus on what happens on the field, Dr. Svenja Wolf, assistant professor of sport psychology, is interested in the audience and athletes’ emotional journeys—or lack thereof. With no one in the stadiums, Wolf wonders if it will have a mental impact on the athletes. “Extraordinary performances moving the audience in awe, the spark of spectators' excitement motivating athletes to go beyond their limits, individuals of all backgrounds coming together in shared joy: collective emotions like these will likely be missed greatly at this year's Olympics, and with them their benefits for performance and social integration,” she says. “Thus, one more challenge of Tokyo 2020 will be for teams, coaches and athletes—as well as organizers and journalists—to foster a sense of emotional connectedness despite the absence of an audience, visitors and substantial contact among Olympians.”
Whatever happens at the Olympic Games, it will be an event that will go down in history as one of the most interesting, and researchers at FSU will be investigating and studying these Games for years to come.