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Olympic athletes face new performance anxiety: No fans in the stands

"I'm a little worried how it's going to affect me," gymnast Simone Biles said.
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No fans in the stands could be a major hurdle for some of the U.S. athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

With Covid-19 cases rising again in the Japanese capital and the games kicking off in just two weeks, local authorities have pulled the plug on plans to have even a reduced-number of spectators at the main sporting events as well as the opening ceremony.

That concerns gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, who vaulted into fame by winning four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

“Personally, I thrive under pressure, so I’m a little bit worried how it’s going to affect me once we get over there,” Biles said in an interview with NBC's "TODAY" show co-anchor Hoda Kotb.

Diver Krysta Palmer, who is competing in her first Olympics, told NBC News she’s already come up with a way to give herself a psychological boost: She plans to “visualize” the empty stands leading up to the games and lean on her teammates.

“I know there's gonna be all of my teammates there supporting me,” she said.

Katie Ledecky, a champion swimmer who has already won five Olympic gold medals for the U.S., told reporters the athletes worked hard for five years to get to Tokyo.

“I still think that’s a really beautiful thing,” she said.

But there’s no denying these games will be different, both for the competitors and the millions of people who will be tuning in to see the world’s best athletes go for gold.

“I know this is going to be a kind of made-for-TV Olympics,” Ledecky said.

Japan, which has 126 million people crowded into a country that’s smaller in area than California, has been far more successful at preventing the spread of Covid-19 than the United States and other developed nations. As of Friday, it had reported a little over 812,000 confirmed cases and nearly 15,000 deaths, the latest NBC News figures show.

By comparison, the U.S. has recorded nearly 34 million confirmed cases and over 609,000 Covid-19 deaths — both world-leading figures.

While about 47 percent of the U.S. is fully vaccinated, just 16 percent of the Japanese population has received both shots, according to statistics compiled by Our World in Data.

Worried that the Olympics could turn into an Olympic-size superspreader event, Japanese authorities had already barred foreign fans from the games and limited the number of spectators allowed at the big events to a maximum of 10,000.

With Covid-19 cases ticking upward again and polls showing many of his compatriots remain opposed to holding the games at all in Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday announced a state of emergency in Tokyo and said the games would go on but without any fans cheering on the athletes.

“We must take stronger steps to prevent another national outbreak, also considering the impact of the coronavirus variants,” Suga said at a task force meeting.

So far, at least three Olympic athletes arriving in Japan have tested positive for Covid-19, as have some staffers in the Olympic Village, according to published reports.

In interviews with NBC News, former Olympic competitors and sports psychologists all said it remains to be seen how the Olympic athletes will respond when there’s only silence in the stands.

“Competing without a cheering crowd could be a real challenge for some athletes,” former U.S. Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk Sell said.