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Canadian sprinter says 10k fans at Tokyo Olympics is better than 'zero k' fans

Canadian decathlete Pierce LePage estimates there were perhaps 100 or 150 fans at the recent Hypo-Meeting multi-events competition in Gotzis, Austria, where he finished runner-up to teammate Damian Warner.

Canadian decathlete Pierce LePage estimates there were perhaps 100 or 150 fans at the recent Hypo-Meeting multi-events competition in Gotzis, Austria, where he finished runner-up to teammate Damian Warner.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced athletes to compete in empty arenas, 150 fans felt like many more.

"It was cool to finally have fans," said the 25-year-old from Whitby, Ont. "We competed in indoor meets (this past winter) and it was my training partner, two other athletes, officials and that's it. . . no one there, no presence. So, this was a good change, it was cool."

Fully prepared to compete in an empty arena at the Tokyo Games, LePage applauded Monday's news that as many as 10,000 fans will now be permitted.

Hoping to save some of the spirit of a Games amid a pandemic, Olympic organizers set a limit of 50 per cent capacity, all of whom must be Japanese residents, regardless of whether it's indoors or outdoors.

"10k is better than zero k," said Canadian sprinter Aaron Brown. "We already knew the stadium wouldn't be electric like it normally is and that's unfortunate, but that's just one of many elements of the Olympics that will be changed because of COVID.

"I think for most athletes, myself especially, we are just grateful for the opportunity to still compete at the Olympics and chase our goals. The extracurricular sacrifices, though unfortunate, are secondary to the main objective."

Officials said that if COVID-19 cases start to climb again, fans could still be barred. Spectators from abroad had been banned several months ago, meaning Canadian family members and friends must watch from home.

Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean called the news "incredibly exciting."

"The intensity that a crowd, even a quiet one, brings to sport — think of the hush at a golf game or tennis match — will contribute to the gravitas and consequence of every movement and moment," said the three-time Olympic rowing gold medallist. "I am going to be clapping, pounding, drumming (whatever is allowed) my heart out."

Among the rules: fans must wear masks and aren't permitted to cheer. It remains to be seen how they will be enforced.

"I think if the energy is high and someone does something crazy, I don't see how you'd stop people from being like, 'Wow!' or 'Crazy!'" said LePage, with a laugh. "Someone breaks a world record, people are going to cheer. I think it's natural."

Japanese health officials fear that crowds at the Olympics could drive cases up. The country's top medical adviser, Dr. Shigeru Omi, recommended last week that safest way to hold the Olympics would be without fans, pointing out that they don't just pose a risk at the venues but also on commuter trains, in restaurants and other public spaces.

"Even as Japan continues to climb steadily in their vaccination rate, I doubt you'd find any epidemiologist not on the IOC's payroll who would suggest that this is a good idea for any indoor venues," said Evan Dunfee, a world bronze medallist in race walk. "It'll be great for the athletes, no doubt, but it's really difficult to view any IOC/organizing committee decision through any lens other than money. I've just become too jaded."

Because of Canada's travel restrictions and protocols at home, crowds will be a jolt to most Canadian athletes in particular, who've run, jumped and swam largely to cheers from teammates in otherwise empty venues.

The Olympic swimming trials are underway in front of no fans in Toronto. The same goes for the Olympic track and field trials this weekend in Montreal, and the men's Olympic basketball qualifier that tips off June 29 in Victoria.

"Fans being allowed to attend Olympic events is certainly a positive sign that safe steps are being taken to provide an Olympic experience that is getting closer to one that we've all been wishing for," said women's basketball coach Lisa Thomaidis. "From a strictly basketball perspective, we're used to playing in front of fans and in an environment with noise and emotion . . . so getting closer to that type of scenario is a positive for us."

A limited number of vaccinated fans were permitted in the upper two levels at the recent FIBA AmeriCup basketball tournament in Puerto Rico, where the Canadian women finished fourth.

Melissa Humana-Paredes, a world champion in beach volleyball with Sarah Pavan, said a crowd can be a difference-maker.

"There is something to be said about being on centre-court in a full stadium that adds to the excitement, the adrenalin and sometimes even to your performance," she said.

LePage said in a gruelling event like the two-day decathlon, fans can be a massive boost when athletes are all but running on fumes.

"The atmosphere is a super important thing . . . to keep the momentum going, and keep the atmosphere intense or high energy, otherwise you kind of get out that rhythm," said LePage. "The difference of 100 fans in Gotzis was enough to get everyone kind of going and pumped up, it was like, 'Oh wow, this is a real meet, it's actually happening.'"

His favourite crowd was at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

Canadian wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos is hopeful that if the Olympics are held safely with fans, that might open things up for the Paralympics.

"If Tokyo can allow fans in a safe way then I would love for that to happen," said the seven-time Paralympic medallist. "The Japanese vaccination program is going well now, so maybe in a month 50 per cent or more of the population will be vaccinated, and then in two months for the Paralympics it should be even more."

The Olympics open July 23rd, while the Paralympics begin August 24th.

The capacity at venues could expand beyond 10,000. Olympic stakeholders — including sponsors and sporting federation officials — aren't counted among that total, according to organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto. There have been reports in Japanese media that up to 20,000 people could attend the opening ceremony, over and above the athletes.

— With files from Donna Spencer and The Associated Press

— Follow @Ewingsports on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press