MISHIMA: The soon-to-be Olympic champion was in what cyclists derisively call “the pain cave,” empty lungs searing and legs feeling like dead weight. The climb he was on seemed interminable, the evil gradient sending him straight into the sky.
Hardly the time for Richard Carapaz to look fondly upon a near-naked man running beside him on the road.
Except ... did the stoic rider from Ecuador actually crack a smile?
Indeed, he did. That same stunt that overzealous fans pull in the Alps and Pyrenees during the Tour de France, where it might annoy Carapaz to no end, was actually welcomed by him in the Olympic road race. That's because the draconian measures taken by the organizers of the Tokyo Games to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have also prevented fans from the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see most of the world's best athletes perform on their own soil.
Or roads, as it were.
“It gave us a sensation of somehow coming back to normality, seeing the fans there,” Carapaz said later. "I loved it.”
Technically speaking, a ban on fans for almost every event remains in place. Police and volunteer security guards are on almost constant patrol. But that hasn't stopped many locals from catching a glimpse of the action.
On the way to the opening ceremony, thousands lined the street to cheer for the buses, even though they had no idea who was riding inside. They held up signs that read “Welcome to Tokyo,” despite public sentiment that has run strongly against the staging of the Games. When drones rose above the stadium, they were oohing and ahhing and taking pictures, just as they would have been watching their beloved Shohei Ono competing in their national pastime, Judo.
Sixty miles to the east, where surfing made its Olympic debut, fans found their way to Tsurigasaki Beach.
Starting on the first day of the three-day tournament, dozens crowded around the plastic orange fence marking the security perimeter, their revelry building throughout the day. Far off in the distance, locals could see the beach and athletes moving into the water, along with coaches, journalists and volunteers at work.
Nobody seemed to mind the jetties near the surf zone that blocked much of the competition.
Over at Ariake Urban Sports Park, a dazzling stadium setup that would have seated 7,000 spectators for the Olympic debut of skateboarding, 8-year-old Ayane Nakamura was doing ollies on her “Peanuts” skateboard outside the venue.
She had come with her mother, Rie, and camped outside at 7 a.m. in hopes of seeing her hero, Yuto Horigome, and the rest of the men arriving for competition. When the security guards inevitably showed up to shoo away Nakamura and her friend, 8-year-old Sora Yamagishi, the sprightly youngster in the blue Nike skateboarding cap kept slipping away.
“Some people scold me several times,” Nakamura said, “so I have to hide when I see these people.”
Others managed to find vantage points to watch skateboarding, too, and they were richly rewarded. Not only did Horigome win the men's street event, Momiji Nishiya took gold and Funa Nakayama bronze in the women's event.
“I love skateboarding and follow all Japanese top skaters,” said Tamura, who works for a Tokyo staffing agency and managed to catch some of the kickflips and railstands through binoculars.
Were fans bummed they couldn't get in the venue? Maybe get a little closer to the athletes?
“To be honest,” Tamura said, “I couldn't get a ticket, so I am not that shocked. But in this circumstances, the decision makes sense, although it is sad.”
Shogo Miyamoto, a freelancer from Kyoto, also thought the decision to ban spectators was correct. But that hasn't stopped him from trying to breathe in the Olympic atmosphere. He arrived in Tokyo on the second full day of competition and tried to get a glimpse of a few of the venues, then planned to head down the coast to catch some sailing.
“I wasn't really interested in sports,” Miyamoto said. "But the Olympics is something that you wouldn't have in your home country twice in your life. Maybe not even once. That's why I wanted to come and explore the venues.”
There are still plenty of opportunities, too, for the most intrepid of fans.
With the right equipment and and a little bit of gumption, golf fans might be able to catch a glimpse of Masters champion Hideki through the trees lining the East Course at Kasumigaseki Country Club. At Odaiba Marine Park, where a few souls braved the rain to watch the triathlon this week, long-distance swimmers will compete in the marathon.
Speaking of marathons, the track and field marathon will take place next week in Odori Park in Sapporo, about 700 miles northeast of Tokyo, where temperatures should be slightly cooler. That could mean sightings of reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya's marathon world record-holder Brigid Kosgei or American four-time Olympian Galen Rupp.
Technically speaking, fans are prohibited from lining the route. But good luck policing 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) of road.
Those unwilling to run afoul of the law can catch the final week of cycling, which will shift to the velodrome in Izu for track cycling. Its location in the Shizuoka prefecture, like the mountain bike course and the road race finish at Fuji International Speedway, falls outside the spectator ban, meaning up 1,800 people will be able to squeeze inside.
Good for the fans. Good for the athletes missing their support, too.
“Initially I was quite gutted. Without fans completely would have been different,” said Britain's Laura Kenny, a four-time Olympic champion in cycling. “Would they have played crowd noise? Could they have chosen the London crowd? It wouldn't have felt as exciting as it could have been. I'm glad to have some people coming in.”
Michio Miura and his wife Mayumi wavered right up until the last minute on whether they should take advantage of having some of the few seats available for cycling in Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo.
Like many, they were worried about virus risks at a time when parts of Japan are under emergency measures to curb rising case numbers.
"If we caught coronavirus, it would cast a real shadow over the Games," said Mayumi, who -- unlike many in Japan -- favoured the Olympics going ahead despite the pandemic.
"In the end, we decided to come because it seemed that there wouldn't be many people and there wouldn't be much risk, given it's held outdoors," she added.
At the Fuji International Speedway venue, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Tokyo, the rules on Wednesday allowed for 10,000 spectators, less than half the venue's capacity of 22,000. But only 2,600 showed up.
And it's a pattern seen elsewhere.
After the decision was made to ban fans from most venues -- with strict limits on the remaining sites -- just 70,000 tickets remained out of 3.63 million sold before the Games were postponed.
But of those, 30,000 requests for refunds have been submitted.
And at another venue allowing fans, in northeastern Japan's Miyagi region, only around 2,000 people have showed up to watch recent football matches -- well below the 10,000 cap.
- 'Our only chance' -
Daisuke Ono, 37, came to watch the cycling on Wednesday with his wife and four children, but admitted he'd "hesitated" over the decision.
"But since Shizuoka is practically the only place where you can see the Games, it was our only chance," he said.
And not everyone is so hesitant.
Some people have been showing up to events held on public roads in Tokyo, hoping for a chance to glimpse competition despite requests from authorities to stay away.
Naoto Sugiyama, 52, said he'd decided to come to the cycling because it was "an occasion not to be missed".
And the 52-year-old said he was disappointed that there was not a "crowd of supporters to encourage the riders".
Tomoe Kogo, wearing a kimono printed with Olympic rings, said she had decided to come specifically because she did not think the venue would be full.
"I heard that a lot of people asked for refunds, so to be honest I figured there probably wouldn't be crowds," she said.
Venue manager Sarah Barton Smith told AFP she felt people were starting to warm to the Games.
"I think people are realising that after all the negativity, this is their only chance to watch the Games," she said.
"That did bring some people out."
For some though, the lack of crowds was actually a plus, with Satoru Onishi saying it was "really nice that there weren't many people".
"It would have been awful if we were packed in like sardines."
(With AFP Inputs)