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An Olympics Without Overseas Fans – What Would Coubertin Say?

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A statue of International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder Pierre de Coubertin at the entrance of the new IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. /VCG Photo

By Philip Barker |

At the recent International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session, President Thomas Bach revealed that he regularly “talks” to Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin and often consults his writings.

“Pierre de Coubertin is always an inspiration, such a visionary it is hard to imagine. Always happy to see him sitting under his tree which we planted,” Bach said.

Coubertin was a prolific correspondent throughout his life. He had plenty to say about the role of spectators in sport. For him those who watched sport were “an indirect agent of improvement”.

This week’s decision to ban overseas spectators from the Tokyo Olympics came in the wake of a poll conducted by Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, which asserted that 77 per cent of Japanese citizens were uneasy about allowing foreign visitors.

It will bring to an end, for the time being at least, a tradition of overseas visitors which goes all the way back to the first Olympics of the Modern era in 1896 where Coubertin had been a first-hand witness.

Before those Games, an advertisement in the bulletin of the International Committee for the Olympic Games proclaimed that the “Thomas Cook and sons’ agency has started talks with railway and cruise ship companies aimed at negotiating discounts for both competitors and the simply curious who will make their way to Greece on the occasion of the Olympic Games.”

The company established international offices and were even allocated space at the prestigious Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens. This was where Coubertin resided during his stay. He wrote of his pleasure at “tourists from widely separated countries”.

For most, the destination of choice was the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, venue for athletics, weightlifting and gymnastics.

Coubertin saw it as “a living stadium. This one will be alive with the collective life imparted to the monuments by the crowds that throng them.”

It was certainly impressive. Initially built in around 330 BC, it had been refashioned in marble and many centuries later, restored for the 1896 Games thanks to the patronage of George Averoff, a wealthy Greek businessman.

The official report of the Games described how for the Opening Ceremony, “Most of the wedges were filled with spectators, long before the hour fixed for the beginning”.

The Estia newspaper in Athens had called for “the entrance fee to be abolished and access left free to all rows of seats.”

On the day of the marathon, won by hometown hero Spiridon Louis, it reported how “all the seats of the upper tiers, the space in between them, the hills opposite, the streets leading to the stadium were covered with thousands of people”.

Coubertin estimated that at its height, the crowd was over 60,000.

It was a similar story at the swimming events held on the coast. “From early morning the whole of the road along the circular harbour was occupied by the crowd, thus presenting with the houses whose balconies and rooftops were thronged with people, an unusual spectacle.”

A decade later, Coubertin admitted that “the thousands and thousands of spectators who came to applaud the victors in the first Olympiads conferred on the institution its global and international character.”

Before the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, organisers circulated publicity material to their overseas diplomatic missions.

They told officials “we feel compelled to take every opportunity of drawing the attention of the foreign public to the Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912.

“We intend to print a large quantity of picture cards, some of which represent the Stadium, with explanatory text in various languages as we have reason to believe that the stream of tourists to Sweden from abroad next summer will be very large.”

Even the Organising Committee of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin were keen to entice as many visitors as possible and circulated a wide range of publicity in a variety of languages.

Coubertin sounded a wary note. “At first glance it would seem that as much space as possible should be provided to accommodate the largest possible crowds. We have grown accustomed to judging the success of a festival by the number of those in attendance.”

He compared crowds at sporting events to audiences at the theatre.

“The artist alone, can say how powerful is the link which binds him to his public, what strange and stirring fluid passes between them, shaking even the strongest nerves in the performer and capable of transporting the spectator or the listening to heights of approval or depths of despair.”

Yet Coubertin’s writings can be interpreted in different ways. In one article on the “Origins and Limits of the Progress of Sport” he wrote: “It has been proved that the absence of spectators discourages the sportsman and reduces his capacities. That is a law with almost universal application.”

And yet almost in the next breath, he conceded. 

“It has been demonstrated over and over again, that athletes can work just as well on days when the attendance is less than expected. Only if sparse crowds were to become an habitual occurrence might a certain discouragement set in.”

As early as 1909, Coubertin had mused on the ideal spectator. His notion of “competence”, that they should be prepared for attending the sporting arena seems almost Brechtian.

Coubertin suggested that “in principle, the ideal sports spectator is a sportsman on holiday, taking a break in his own exercise routine to follow the exploits of a more skilful or better trained friend. Too large a crowd, where non athletes are present in greater numbers is harmful in terms of the technical aspects of the sport”.

Television had yet to become a major force in sport by the time Coubertin died in 1937. The concept of “sport presentation” or “spectator engagement” was unknown. What would he have thought about dancing with the mascot or Kiss Cam?

These words, written towards the end of his life might provide a clue.

“One of the disturbing facts today is that, often, almost half the spectators present, or at least a good third, knows next to nothing about the sporting spectacle they are witnessing. Often it is these very spectators who show the greatest enthusiasm and cheer the loudest.”

IOC members apart from the President routinely invoke the spirit of Coubertin, but he described one specific type of sporting contest which he described as “monstrous”.

Writing after the Amsterdam 1928 Olympics, Coubertin asserted that they had “justified my opposition to allowing women into the Olympic Games. If some women want to play football or box, let them, provided that the event takes place without spectators.”

It may be that through circumstances beyond their control, Tokyo’s Olympic organisers will have granted his wish in the coming months.

The sight of empty stadia has become a familiar phenomenon over the past year, although when Germany’s Bundesliga resumed last year in “Project Restart”, Borussia Mönchengladbach displayed cardboard cutouts bearing the images of their fans. For €19 (£16/$22), any supporter was able to have a “presence” in the stadium.

Back in 1992, English Premier League club Arsenal had rebuilt a stand and tried to disguise the empty part of the ground with a mural to give the impression of fans “watching” during the construction.

This ran into problems when it was pointed out that it did not reflect diversity of the community. A re-paint was soon ordered.

The patterned seating in Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium will give the illusion of a full house even if that is not the case. The Yomiuri Shimbun survey which found opposition to foreign visitors also reported that 48 per cent were opposed to spectators at all.

Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō admitted this week that crowd numbers “depend on how many are infected. We will monitor the situation on the spread and will make a decision in April on the basic direction.”

It would seem that in common with other sporting events over the last year, the majority of spectators will be television viewers.

How the events are presented for television remains another matter. For many sports, coverage from empty arenas has been accompanied by “canned” crowd noise. Though viewers are often also given the option of listening to the actual sound, this might not be considered desirable at the Games, given the less than Olympian language that is sometimes used in elite sport.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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