Bucks County’s top runners discuss challenges of Tokyo track and field

Doylestown elite runner Tracey Sawyer (right) had a chance to meet Joan Benoit Samuelson, gold medal winner of the women's marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

What if they held an Olympics and nobody came?

Or, perhaps even sadder, what if they held an Olympics and no one was allowed to come?

The Tokyo Olympic Games, operating under a dark cloud since March of last year, had to make the difficult decision not to allow spectators into events due to the lingering pandemic.

To many, this could have a measurable impact on major sports such as track and field.

Not only will athletes be competing in a “quiet’’ stadium, but they will have to be extra careful in their down time, following strict safety protocols.

And, in general, will all these limitations lower the energy level and spirit of the Games, such as the Opening Ceremonies, which begin on Friday?

Finally, with rumors flying of another postponement due to rising COVID infections in Japan, was it wise to even attempt this Olympiad in the first place?

We reached out to some of our elite runners in and around Bucks County to learn their opinions on these issues.

As for lack of crowd noise both in the stadium for track and field events as well as the streets for the completion of the men’s and women’s marathon, comments varied.

“There is no doubt that there will be an effect on the athletes for these games,’’ said world-class Ironman triathlete Todd Wiley of Pipersville. “However, we forget that these are professional athletes at the top of their sport.  Their jobs are to adapt to any circumstance that is thrown at them. They have one goal in mind, to get an Olympic medal. This is what they have been training for their entire lives.  Whatever it takes to get that they will sacrifice everything. Having no spectators there does stink but they will perform at their top to get that medal and shut everything else out.’’

Pete Lederer, who has competed in the Boston Marathon 17 straight years (a lot of them in under three hours), believes Tokyo will offer some unique challenges.

“The lack of spectators will definitely dampen the excitement of some events, but I don’t think the performance of runners in the marathon is one that will be greatly affected,’’ Lederer said. “Typically you only see large crowds at the finish of the marathon and distance runners are used to training and competing without crowds.’’

Another world-class Ironman triathlete, Nancy Smith of New Britain, has a slightly different take on the marathon.

“I think that the lack of spectators especially at the end of the marathon would have a big effect on the athletes,’’ she said. “That is when the going gets tough and without the encouragement of spectators they will really have to rely on digging deep and be mentally strong.’’

Doylestown elite runner Tracey Sawyer offers a similar belief.

“I think the lack of spectators will be detrimental to most athletes since most thrive on having an audience and drawing energy from them,’’ Sawyer said. “But there may be some athletes who will perform the same regardless of the stage and even others who may benefit from a more relaxed scene.’’

Former Council Rock High School standout and current national-class masters track runner Rob Ciervo was pleased with the decision to let the Games begin.

“I believe the Olympic Games should be held this year and it was a wise decision to move forward with the games even in the midst of this global pandemic,’’ Ciervo said.  “Now more than ever the world needs a shared experience highlighting the tenacity of the human spirit to push oneself farther than ever in the pursuit of human excellence.  These Olympic Games will allow that tradition to continue and motivate young and old to be the best version of themselves they can be.

“Professional and collegiate track and field athletes have been competing for over a year now in both outdoor and indoor meets with no crowds, little crowds and even large crowds.  Race organizers have moved mountains to ensure these events occur as safely as possible for both competitors and spectators.  I see no reason why the Olympic Games cannot follow suit.’’

Coach Jimmy Balmer works with some of the top runners in the area, including a number of sub-four-minute milers.

Balmer, who was part of the relay team which carried the torch to the 1984 Olympic Games site at the Los Angeles Coliseum, went along with Ciervo that the competition should go on.

“I don’t think the spirit of the Games will be tarnished,’’ Balmer said. “The Games have had many controversies, the Munich shootings, etc. and the Games are still the Games. It’s still spirited competition between teams and countries. We need these Games.  We need to have more ‘normal’ things these days.  I’m sure they are taking all the necessary precautions for all the athletes and officials.’’

Sawyer said having athletes staying quarantined and missing out on the usual fun is just part of what all of us have gotten used to over the past 18 months.

“I hope most would take the rules seriously and do their best to abide and avoid getting sick and/or infecting others,’’ she said. “The spirit will be dampened, but we have all learned to adjust over the past year and half and I think most people will be grateful that the Games can go on even if things are a little different.’’


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About Wayne Fish 2446 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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