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Athletes stress self-reliance amid empty seats and isolation

Athletes stress self-reliance amid empty seats and isolation
Posted at 7:15 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 22:50:26-04

Crowd noise makes a massive difference in the atmosphere in sports like soccer, as anyone who watched the recent raucous Euro 2020 tournament after a mostly silent Premier League season can attest. Chants and songs fill any lulls in the action and ratchet up the intensity while two teams battle for 90 minutes.

Track and field has a different dynamic, usually taking place in smaller stadiums and in short bursts of jumps, throws and sprints, but an Olympic-sized crowd can be a source of inspiration. This year’s Olympic competitors will have to adjust.

It’ll be a quick adjustment, too, for U.S. athletes who just competed in the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, a paradise for athletes in track-obsessed Eugene, Oregon.

“I love drawing from the crowd,” defending 800-meter bronze medalist Clayton Murphy said on a conference call with several U.S. track and field athletes early Thursday morning. “I remember coming around the curve at Hayward at the Olympic Trials. At partial capacity, it was just loud enough to give that little boost. Knowing that (fans won’t be there) going into it allows me to prepare in different ways and understand the fact that I might not have that little boost of the crowd coming into the last little bit, or you might not have it going into your last jump or throw or whatever you have going on. So you’ve got to draw on yourself, your competitors, and your competitive spirit, and find that little drive in other ways.”

Triple jumper Will Claye sees it as a test:

“You’ve got to motivate yourself to go out there and do what you’ve trained for,” Claye said. “When you’re in shape, and you’re ready, and you’ve put in the work – you still have that within you. You can pull it out of yourself if you dig down deep and you want it that bad. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to at the Games.”

Claye and Murphy also see advantages to hunkering down in the Olympic Village and taking care to avoid COVID-19 exposure.

“With the protocols we’ve got to follow, the limitation of not being able to necessarily attend Opening and Closing Ceremonies or being able to see other events, it kind of locks you down and allows you to do one of two things – either get in your own head and sit in the Village and wonder, or sit in the Village and really focus on what you’re there to do,” Murphy said. “I kind of look at it as a business trip right now.”

Some business travelers who run up food and entertainment expenses on their trips might find that an odd analogy, but these Olympians are more likely to focus on the task at hand, especially someone like Claye, who has rebounded from a Achilles tear in November 2019 for an opportunity to claim his first gold medal after taking silver behind fellow American Christian Taylor in the last two Olympic Games.

“I’ve got all my eggs in one basket,” Claye said. “You know what I’m going out there for. It’s not a secret as to what it is. I feel like there’s nothing else on my mind but to go out there come back with what I feel is already mine. Everything else -- there is nothing else. We can’t go out in the city, there’s nothing we can do but go out there and train and compete. I’m going out there to handle business.”

While spending time in splendid isolation, athletes also have to compartmentalize to avoid worrying too much about the scourge of COVID-19. Sydney McLaughlin, who recently broke the world record in the 400-meter hurdles, put the threat in perspective.

“It’s as simple as controlling what you can control,” McLaughlin said. “Nobody has a full understanding of where it's going to be and when's it's going to be in terms of the virus spreading and whatnot. For all of us, it’s taking the precautions, doing the things that we know are going to keep us, our teammates and everybody safe. I can’t control everything, but I can control mentally how I deal with it.”

Not that athletes will be staring at the wall the whole time, pondering the prospect of running in an empty stadium. Ask long jumper Brittney Reese, who speaks with the experience of someone who has an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, and four world outdoor championships.

“I’m bringing my Xbox,” Reese said. “I’ll just stay there (in the Village). I’m not really worried about the COVID tests. Whatever protocol they have going for us right now, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure we’re good to go and continue with the Olympic Games.”

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