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Countries Step Up To Fill Empty Olympic Venues With Fanfare

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

You've heard a lot about the empty stands at the vast Olympic venues in Tokyo, where the best athletes in the world are jumping, swimming and running for the gold. In the last days of the games, country delegations were trying to make up for the lack of fans by cheering louder and packing at least a small part of the stands with Olympic and team officials. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Tokyo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It was the final set point in the U.S. women's beach volleyball gold medal match. April Ross and Alix Klineman, affectionately known as The A-Team, were on the streak of their lives. They'd only lost one set of any match in the tournament. The Australian team served right into the net and the American duo was golden.

(APPLAUSE)

FADEL: They embraced. Klineman repeated, oh, my God, into Ross's ear. And then they turned to the one small section of the large outdoor Tokyo Stadium that was partially filled with people that were not journalists. They raised their arms. That moment aired on NBC for Americans to watch from home, unable to be in the stands. Neither were any other non-Olympic related - fans. And team delegates went crazy trying to fill the near-empty stadium with the sound of victory, like the crowds Ross and Klineman had played in front of in years past.

(APPLAUSE)

FADEL: April Ross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APRIL ROSS: It felt more personal, but it still felt - we still felt the gravity of the situation in the match and how big it was.

FADEL: That's Ross speaking with Klineman by her side afterwards. She says, with each match they won, the gaggle of people watching got bigger, all of them Olympic volunteers, Olympic officials or people with country delegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: More people showed up and more people started cheering. And the people in the stands for us was our whole crew and our strength. And our strength and conditioning coach, especially, is super loud. And we hear him every single match. And we keep telling him to keep cheering, keep cheering. And it means a lot to us.

FADEL: At this game, about 20 or Aussies and 20 or so Americans tried to out-chant each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: The Aussie crew was big today. It's probably the biggest of any team we've played so far, and they have their own chants. And it meant a lot to me, Like, to hear the, you know, our delegation start chanting USA against their Aussie cheer.

FADEL: The strength and conditioning coach Ross talked about was Christian Hartford. His voice echoed through the stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FADEL: Yes, that was my goal.

FADEL: But it's also just how Hartford is, cheering on the team he'd worked to prepare for this moment. As Kline and Ross spiked, set and dug their way to victory over Australia, Hartford got louder, stood taller.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN HARTFORD: I think it's magnified when there's no fans because obviously you want to give them the energy and make them feel like, you know, the USA is behind them, supporting them. And so, yeah, that was kind of my thing was I just want to be as loud as humanly possible with a flag and a weird looking bucket hat and just scream.

FADEL: One U.S. skateboarder played music in his earbuds to replace the crowd noise he usually feeds off of. And even some journalists joined in cheers at other venues for athletes who turned to them after record-breaking moments. And all those rules about no chanting, no singing because of the pandemic? Well, at history-making moments, they fell to the wayside. And team delegations tried to make up for thousands of fans that normally would have been here cheering if it were safe. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.