With no family in stands, Canadian Olympians prepare to succeed amid the sound of silence

·6 min read
Fans cheer for Canada's Rosie MacLennan after she won the gold medal in the trampoline gymnastics competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press - image credit)
Fans cheer for Canada's Rosie MacLennan after she won the gold medal in the trampoline gymnastics competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press - image credit)

The roar of an Olympic and Paralympic crowd. The rush of emotion. An adrenaline surge for athletes who in many cases have become dependent on thousands of people clapping and cheering.

And those unforgettable scenes of athletes being embraced by their families after competing.

There's no question that on the world's largest athletic stage, a huge crowd can be a motivating factor and propel athletes to greatness.

But this year, in the backdrop of the pandemic, those collective voices – willing and rooting on athletes to victory and comforting them in defeat – will fall silent.

International fans have already been turned away from attending the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The International Olympic Committee will soon make a ruling on whether fans from Japan can fill the venues and with many parts of the country in a state of emergency, it seems unlikely any fans will be in the seats to watch the myriad competitions.

So now, with seven weeks to go until the Olympics opening ceremony, athletes are coming up with strategies with their sports psychologists and support staff. They'll try to map out what will undoubtedly be a Games like no other, void of the throngs of people so many athletes are accustomed to seeing and hearing.

"It will be different because I think a lot of athletes thrive off that energy and thrive off that support," two-time Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan told CBC Sports.

Maclennan says support from friends and family keeps her grounded.
Maclennan says support from friends and family keeps her grounded.(Getty Images)

In a sport so precise as trampoline, finding even the slightest edge can be the difference between standing atop the podium or being one step below.

MacLennan, 32, has competed with that precision and excellence the past two Games and she's now looking to make history by stringing together three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

But after missing the podium at her first Games in Beijing in 2008, MacLennan found a secret weapon she didn't know she needed until it happened four years later in London.

"I didn't know where my family was sitting but I happened to look up and see them in the crowd. I saw so many Canadian flags in the crowd," MacLennan recalls. "I had my eyes closed. I was going through my routine. Feeling what it would feel like. Then I opened my eyes, looked up and they were right there.

"It was kind of like a movie. My brother was looking at me. He was smiling. I stuck my tongue out at him and was just laughing."

MacLennan celebrates her gold medal in trampoline at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
MacLennan celebrates her gold medal in trampoline at the 2016 Rio Olympics.(David Ramos/Getty Images)

Family support helped calm MacLennan

Seeing her family and fans brought her back into the moment and removed some of the fear, anxiety and stress she was feeling moments before competing. MacLennan would go on to capture gold shortly after that experience.

Having her family and friends there supporting her, she feels, became the difference as it helped calm her.

"So much of the pressure was off and it reminded me about what's important. I knew my family and friends would be there no matter what," MacLennan said. "Their love and support would not change if I won or lost."

MacLennan's entourage was along for the ride four years later in Rio, something she was more deliberate about in Brazil — duplicating the plan from London. And it once again led to Olympic gold.

But prior to competing in Rio, she couldn't find her family in the crowd. So she came up with another strategy to make her feel they were with her as she competed.

"In my pocket I had a piece of paper and I wrote why I love the sport, who my anchors were and that they were there to love and support me no matter what on it," MacLennan said. "They were in my pocket. That's something I'll do in Tokyo."

Dr. Jane Thornton, a former Canadian world champion rower who competed at the 2008 Olympics, has also attended Games as part of the support staff and she knows from both the athlete and doctor perspective how important family and fans can be while competing.

Justin Gatlin of the U.S. prepares to race the 100 metres in front of an empty stadium at a test event in Tokyo in May.
Justin Gatlin of the U.S. prepares to race the 100 metres in front of an empty stadium at a test event in Tokyo in May.(AFP via Getty Images)

'Suppress those doubts'

"You can clearly see the effect from either angle on how important it is to have your family, your squad, your entourage in the stands cheering for you," Thornton said. "You want to suppress those doubts and get grounded.

"At the end of the day – in victory and defeat – you have people who support you, love you, regardless of how you perform. It takes some of that stress away."

Thornton says it is a conversation sports psychologists are having right now, making sure athletes aren't affected by what are most likely going to be empty venues. But she says drama and unforeseen situations have always been part of competition on the international stage.

"Before every Olympics there's always something that rises up before the Games. Security. Venues not being built on time," she said. "The support team is ready with that in mind. We do need to prepare for every eventuality."

Thornton believes it's the first-time Olympians and Paralympians who likely will be affected most by the lack of crowd, only because of what they've come to learn about what previous Games are like.

Those who have been there before know that things always change and Thornton says adaptability will be more important than ever.

"On the flip side of this, there are a lot of athletes who would rather it be like a practice situation and not having fans. There are people who will rise to the occasion without the pressure of having thousands of extra people watching," she said.

But knowing you're supported will always be crucial, says MacLennan. She points to a cheer card campaign by cereal brand Cheerios as something that helps remind her of all the people who have inspired her and help her get to where she is today. The cheer cards allow Canadians to send messages of support to their favourite Team Canada athletes.

"A lot of that keeps me very grounded. Cheer cards. Notes from kids. I love receiving them because it reminds me of where I started," she said. "And makes me grateful that it's not just about how you perform in the sport but also how you do it."

MacLennan will continue to focus on staying grounded through the support of family and friends, while at the same time hoping she soars to an unprecedented third consecutive gold — with very few people in the venue watching.