TOKYO — “Love Rollercoaster” was blaring from the speakers at Shiokaze Park, but for American beach volleyball players Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, it was another ride on the rollercoaster of weirdness as they took on a tough Brazilian team on a stiflingly hot Saturday morning.
Team USA’s youngest-ever beach volleyball team was able to dispatch Ana Patricia Silva Ramos and Rebecca Cavalcanti Barbossa Silva in three sets to win their third straight victory in the Tokyo Olympics and stay in medal contention.
But Tokyo is under a state of emergency because of a rise in Covid-19 cases, so there was only a smattering of applause when it was over. Most of the 12,000 seats were empty.
“Yes,” they answered in unison when asked if they find it jarring to compete to an audience of empty seats.
“We’ve gotten kind of used to it, but it’s still weird,” Claes, her skin glazed with sweat and sand, said after the match. “You can’t feed off their energy, so we have to feed off our energy.”
What’s worse, Sponsil said, is they can’t really cut loose and celebrate. They’re only allowed to spend two hours a day together because Claes, 25, is in quarantine until Sunday.
Why? Because on the flight over to Japan Claes sat near a passenger who tested positive for Covid.
“We’re used to literally being joined at the hip, so that’s hard,” said Sponsil, 24.
Getting into the venue requires passing through a gantlet of security.
Reporters arriving to cover the competition had their temperatures checked not once but twice and had to empty their pockets as they passed through security. Those who brought drinks had to open the bottles and take a sip.
“You must drink,” a smiling but insistent security guard said.
And they had to take the empty bottles with them when they left, because for security reasons, the garbage and recycling cans were sealed with plastic wrap to prevent anybody from using them.
Inside the stadium, a very enthusiastic deejay was blasting a mix of disco, dance music and rock that would have revved up a crowd if there was one.
Some members of sand maintenance team, rakes in hand, were swaying and clapping along to the music. But not the small army of ushers and security guards who outnumbered the athletes and reporters — they were vigorously policing all the empty seats.
When a reporter dared leave his assigned seat for an empty seat in the shade, an usher quickly materialized and shooed him back.
Before Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared the state of emergency, fans were given a list of things they would not be allowed to do. One of them was cheering for the athletes because of fears that it could spread Covid.
That rule appeared to be in place on Saturday as the handful of Brazilians and Americans in the stands, mostly people traveling with the Olympic teams, largely refrained from outbursts, tthough, from time to time, there was some enthusiastic clapping by the Brazilians.
Because of the high temperatures that have blanketed Tokyo through much of the Games, maintenance crews have been wetting down the sand at the beach volleyball venue after the competitors complained it was burning their feet.
But neither the Brazilians nor the Americans appeared to be bothered by the steamy conditions as they fought hard for every point.
“Woo,” a smiling Sponsil said after the match.
Claes wiped her brow when she emerged from the venue a few seconds later.
“We knew it was going to be a battle,” she said. “And it was.”