‘An Olympics without fans is not the Olympics’

Stunning: The Tokyo games are slated to include 339 events held at 42 different venues.

Are fans the real heroes of sport? The news yesterday that some Japanese spectators may be allowed at this summer’s Olympics was a reminder that athletes alone do not make an event.

At first, all went well for the athlete’s mother. Defying the law in Ancient Greece against women watching the Olympic Games, she successfully disguised herself to see him compete.

But when he won, her excitement gave her away. She was arrested. Only her status as the daughter, sister and mother of Olympic victors saved her from the death penalty.

Today the question of whether it is worth risking your life to enjoy the Olympics is on people’s minds once again. The Tokyo games, postponed from last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, are due to open on 23 July. But since April, there has been a surge of Covid cases in Japan, where the vaccination programme is behind that of most developed countries.

Only about 3 million people – less than 3% of the population – have been fully vaccinated. And only those over 65 are likely to be protected by the end of July.

The authorities have already ruled that no foreign spectators will be allowed at the games. But a Japanese newspaper has reported that domestic fans with proof of vaccination or a negative test could be admitted.

Among the Japanese public, there is widespread fear that the games could trigger another outbreak of the disease. Approximately 90,000 people from around the world will be involved, and vaccinations for athletes is not compulsory. A poll found that 62% of Japanese people wanted the games cancelled or postponed, while 33% said they should take place with fewer or no spectators.

In Ancient Greece, the games were sometimes interrupted but never actually cancelled. Such was the honour of holding them, that their site at Olympia was fought over by the city of Elis and the town of Pisa, which enlisted the help of Argos.

Competitors were equally desperate to win and sometimes cheated in the attempt. The Roman Emperor Nero valued Olympic glory so highly that he entered several events in 68AD. Not surprisingly, he was awarded first prize in all of them, including the chariot race – even though he fell out of his chariot.

While the creator of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin argued that taking part was what mattered most, the Ancient Greeks placed all the emphasis on winning. There were no prizes for coming second or third, and in the absence of accurate time-keeping, there were no records to be broken.

Success brought social and political prestige to both the athletes and their families. Several victors went on to seize power in their home cities.

But the philosopher Plato believed the athletes were not the only ones who should be honoured. He observed that people went to the Olympics to do one of three things: compete, watch or buy and sell things.

Of these, he argued, the noblest were the spectators because their activity was closest to pure contemplation – the highest activity of the human mind.

Are fans the real heroes of sport?

Proud of the crowd

Some say, yes: fans often show far more devotion than the athletes competing. A football fan will follow his or her club for life, whether it wins or loses, travelling long distances to cheer it on, often at great expense and in terrible conditions. Players, on the other hand, are quick to move elsewhere if their team does badly – or if they are offered enough money.

Others say, of course not. Sport is about reaching the highest point of individual endeavour. The poet Pindar compared triumphant athletes to the heroes of Greek mythology, some of whom were the sons of gods or goddesses. The performances they give are underpinned by training that demands extraordinary self-discipline. The people cheering them on are of little relevance.

You Decide

  1. Should the Tokyo Olympics go ahead as scheduled?
  2. Baron de Coubertin believed that sport was an essential part of education. Do you agree?


  1. At some Athenian games, a runner could win 100 jars of the best olive oil, each holding around 38 litres. In pairs, research the cost of the most expensive olive oil today and work out what the cash equivalent of the prize would be.
  2. Write a poem comparing your favourite sports personality to a mythical hero.

Some People Say...

“Competition is overrated… and should be avoided wherever possible.”

Peter Thiel (1967 – ), German-American entrepreneur

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Olympic Games flourished for over 1,000 years before they were banned by Emperor Theodosius in around 391 on the grounds that they were a pagan rite. Religion was certainly an important element, with Zeus honoured as the presiding deity. Women were not allowed to compete, but had their own games in honour of Zeus’s wife Hera, with less strenuous events: while the main men’s race was over a distance of around 200 yards, the women’s was one-sixth shorter.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the Olympics should only ever be held in Greece. They involve huge spending on infrastructure, some of which is useless afterwards, so having one place devoted to them would make economic sense. It would also reduce the danger of a boycott by countries at odds with the host nation: the Soviet Union boycotted the 1976 Montreal and 1984 Los Angeles games, while many Western countries stayed away from the 1980 Moscow games.

Word Watch

A town in western Greece.
A city state famous for its horse-breeding, which finally established control of the games in 572BC.
Not to be confused with the town of Pisa in Italy, it is barely a mile from Olympia.
One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. In the 7th Century BC it rivalled Sparta as the most powerful state in the Peloponnese.
In Greek mythology, the king of the gods, who held court on Mount Olympus, over 150 miles from Olympia.
When he was assassinated the following year, his Olympic victories were declared invalid.
Baron de Coubertin
A French nobleman who revived the games in 1896.
A Greek philosopher whose ideas had a profound influence on Western thought.


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