Olympics-Tokyo Games officials bet on technology to make up for lack of fans

FILE PHOTO: A police officer wearing a face mask stands near the entrance of the Main Press Centre, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo, Japan, July 19, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble

TOKYO (Reuters) - The atmosphere at Olympics venues in Tokyo is eerie as the screams, shouts and cries of joy from athletes bounce off empty seats, with spectators banned from events.

The absence of fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major blow, and even digital technology cannot fully replace the lack of atmosphere in the competitions.

"Human connection cannot be replicated digitally," said Yiannis Exarchos, chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services. "I think we need to be honest.

"I am a lover of technology but there is only so much technology can do," he told reporters.

As the Japanese capital grapples with growing infections, the Tokyo Games, postponed from last year because of the pandemic, are being held without either international or local spectators.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had to fast-track its digital plans to add new elements at venues and heighten the experience for competing athletes, while also connecting them to the millions watching on screens at home.

Organisers seek to make up for the absence of spectators with efforts ranging from posting videos and virtual cheers to messages displayed in the arenas and sound from past Games piped in.

Live links are being set up for the relatives and friends of athletes immediately after their competitions, and organisers are trying to engage with the millions of Olympics fans.

Exarchos, whose OBS produces the global Games feed used by broadcasters, said the absence of fans meant organisers had to hasten introduction of digital tools to link with viewers across different time zones, regions, cultures and sports.

The IOC said it racked up record numbers across its own and Tokyo 2020's digital platforms, with a doubling of traffic from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro event for the IOC and Tokyo 2020.

Olympics social media posts have generated more than 2 billion media engagements.

"With all these digital engagement tools we needed to learn a lot...to use technology to highlight and emphasise what has been going on and cannot be physically seen," Exarchos said.

"If we can represent that in the venues we create a more realistic ambience of what is going on out there," he said.

"We will always miss physical presence, but we can do so much more to show the actual connection.

"We need to highlight the world is here, the world is watching, the world is engaged, the world is supporting the efforts of the athletes."

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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