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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

They’ve endured a delayed Olympic Games, rigorous COVID-19 testing requirements and logistical hurdles. But the next biggest test for Olympians may be competing without anyone in the stands.

Driving the news: Psychologists don't know for sure how a spectator-less Olympics will impact athletes' performance, but Olympians are already expressing concern about what it will be like to compete without hearing the cheers of their families and fans.

  • "I like to feed off of the crowd," U.S. gymnastics star Simone Biles recently told AP. "I’m a little bit worried about how I’ll do under those circumstances."
  • "Hearing [coaches and teammates] talk about the energy from the crowd just sounds really amazing and inspirational and I am disappointed that I won't be able to experience that," Valerie Constien, a first-time Olympian in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase, told Axios.

The big picture: Past research suggests that the presence of other people tends to enhance an athlete's performance, but because the Olympics are unlike any other sporting event, psychologists say it's hard to draw conclusions about how this year's spectator-less Games may or may not affect athletes in competition.

  • "We don't really know" what the impact will be, said Sam Sommers, a Tuft University psychology professor and co-author of “This Is Your Brain on Sports."
  • "Yes, the Olympians will be performing in front of empty arenas, but at the same time, they will be performing in front of millions and millions of virtual eyes watching on TV and the internet, and other very high-stakes conditions with Olympic medals on the line," Sommers told Axios. "It’s hard to know exactly how all of that will play out psychologically."

The "bigger concern" may be that athletes' families will be thousands of miles away, said Peter Haberl, a senior sports psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee.

  • "It means the world to [athletes] to have their family there and to share the experience in person," Haberl told Axios.
  • Sommers added that the "social support" families and friends provide is important especially for athletes' mental health. "I know it's only a couple of weeks ... [but] there's something to that idea that that might be just as big if not a bigger influence" on athletes, he said.

Constien explained that not having her sister and boyfriend with her in Tokyo is "going to be the most difficult part."

  • "At the Olympic trials, my sister and my boyfriend were very instrumental in helping me stay calm before the race and going on runs with me before the race ... and getting to embrace them both after the final was so rewarding," she said.

Despite the worries, psychologists said the last year of fan-less sporting events likely provides a glimpse of what is to come in Tokyo.

  • "We have already seen that wonderful performances can help in the absence of fans," Haberl said, citing performances in the French Open, the U.S. Open and the NHL. "So again, this does not have to get in the way of performance."

The bottom line: While it is unclear exactly how, if at all, athletes may be impacted by the fan-less Olympics Games, "everyone's in the same boat," Sommers concluded.

  • "Everyone's competing in the same track with no spectators, everyone's competing in the same swimming arena or basketball court, so everyone's subject to the same thing."

Go deeper: An Olympic fiasco

Go deeper

Tokyo Paralympics kick off amid COVID state of emergency

Three torchbearers wave after lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 24, 2021. Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

The Tokyo Paralympics officially began on Tuesday as athletes representing 162 countries and a delegation of refugees processed in the parade of nations before the cauldron was lit.

Driving the news: The opening ceremony for the 16th Summer Paralympics took place in a spectator-less stadium and featured a smaller number of athletes compared to years prior as COVID-19 restrictions prohibit athletes from entering the Paralympic Village until five days before their competitions, per the New York Times.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."