Not to drone on, but empty stands leaves viewers with empty feeling

TV IMAGE/NBCDrones form a globe over the stadium during the opening ceremony that was missing an in-person audience.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I enjoy a philosophical question even if I don’t know the answer, and I’ve modified it for the Tokyo Olympics: “If the Olympics are staged, and there are no fans present, does anyone care?” 

Indeed, for the participants and their families, the answer is yes. Still, for the rest of us, unless you are dialed into NBC or some other global media outlet attempting to cash in on the every-four-year Olympic spectacle, the woods are eerily quiet.  

We live in the 21st Century, and much of what we take an interest in beams into our homes worldwide. From “Superfoods’’ to sports, hit songs to political controversy, movies to what’s “trending” concern us because they are “promoted.” That’s just the way things are, and there is no satisfaction gained by complaining about it: “It is what it is,” and that being the case, the question of whether the Olympics should have been canceled is moot.  

Watching the spectacle of the Olympics’ opening ceremony this week, I thought, “A lot of creative people worked for years to make something amazing only to have it play to an empty house. 

I recalled working the 2014 World Outdoor Junior Championships, which was then the largest and most global event ever held in Hayward’s history, a de facto tune-up for next year’s 2021 World Games. It was a great pleasure to work beside a gentleman from China, and over a few days, we became friends. When I asked him what he did besides officiate track meets, he modestly said he had been the director of the “Bird’s Nest,” the Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games! (Imagine being at a model airplane contest, and the person next to you was the head of NASA!) Beijing was not just another sporting event, but modern China’s coming-out party on the world stage with every aspect magnified and scrutinized. I asked him if there was “a lot of pressure?” and he dropped his head and said, “You cannot imagine.” And the most significant success of Beijing 2008 was the extraordinary opening ceremony watched by nearly 100,000 adoring fans in person.

Tokyo 2021 is not the same as Beijing 2008, but it was no less a spectacle in the making for over a decade. An empty stadium was never a part of the plan. After working fanless events at Hayward Field these past few months, I can tell you that there is no energy in a large stadium without fans. Athletes will still perform as they have trained to do but live with fans is what energizes the stadium.  

Much as I tried to enjoy the artistry of the Tokyo opening ceremony, it felt flat and forced. I loved the choreography and symbolism of the wooden Olympic Ring creation, but the drone spectacle left me uncomfortable.  

We live with ubiquitous displays of technology in everything we experience. Heck, driving a modern car can bewilder anyone over 40. Hearing the announcers ooh and aah about the extraordinary drone display made me think of the proliferation of satellites in the night sky. I wanted something more organic, more biological, like a cloud of doves or anything alive and breathing, unlike the lifeless silence in the stands.  

Out of respect for the athletes, I will try to find something special in these Olympics but leave it to NBC to put a positive spin on their wearying slogan, “Must See TV.” But, as I watched the celestial technological globe form in the sky above a fanless stadium in a world struggling to address a lethal pandemic, my final thought was, “What if a hacker diverts the drones to scuttle the spaceships carrying the billionaire space invaders, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Now that would be “Must See TV!”

Citius! Altius! Fortius!

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