TOKYO — The Olympics, for all their charm, are a rather cruel setup.
They are a four-year time bomb. The world’s best athletes are assigned a date and a time to perform. They prepare, often in solitude and anonymity, for a single moment on the calendar. It gets closer with each tick of the clock.
As the countdown approaches zero, a sea of strangers expecting to be entertained turns its collective gaze in their direction, eager to dole out pass-fail grades. Reputations are made or broken. Lives are changed.
No sports event does it like the Olympics.
“The scale of everything is a bit hard,” Naomi Osaka said, after losing a third-round tennis match days after lighting the Olympic cauldron to open the Tokyo Games.
The schedule does not care if you are ready. Adam Ondra, regarded as the world’s best climber, recognizes this even before he arrives to his Olympic moment, as sport climbing makes its debut next week.
“In the Olympics or any given competition, you’re just told to climb right now,” Ondra said. “And you’re training for many weeks and months before, knowing that you have to be ready for that day.”
In his usual outdoor realm of big rock walls, the culture works in reverse. The goal is to find the moment, not have it assigned to you. You tackle the climb at your pace, at a time of your choosing, on a day when conditions are perfect and body and mind are in sync.
If everything does not come together, if the moment feels wrong, you walk away.
At the Olympics, Ondra is scheduled to begin performing Aug. 3 at 5 p.m. Tick, tick, tick.
The difference is not just aiming toward the moment. It is the audience that awaits.
“It is making the biggest pressure that I’ve ever felt,” Ondra said. “Because normally, the only pressure that I feel comes from myself.”
None of this is new in sports, but the dynamic is playing out in real time across the Tokyo Olympics. The American gymnast Simone Biles is only one example, the biggest among many.
At the team competition on Tuesday night, she tried one trick. She didn’t feel it. She stopped. The moment felt wrong.
It was jolting, coming as the clock reached zero, when the world was tuned in to watch and judge.
She explained later that the joy of competing was replaced by the pressure to please other people. Without her, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won silver.
“We hope America still loves us,” Biles said.
Hidden in that sad statement is a twist — who are the Olympics for? — and an echo of other athletes who feel the ache of disappointing strangers.
But it is a complicated relationship. More than ever, athletes feel compelled to promote themselves, to use social media to attract fans and please sponsors, some who provide the bulk of an athlete’s livelihood. Many in Tokyo posted regularly on social media, sharing their experience, balancing training and focus with shares and likes.
It may not be a coincidence that issues of mental health are rising to public consciousness in an era of social media.
But bringing an audience along to the Olympics may serve as a reminder that those faceless fans may expect something when the time comes. The Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus, who won gold medals in her first two Olympic finals, said she deleted every social media app on her phone.
“It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming,” she said.
There are about 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competing in Tokyo. They all feel some level of pressure from the outside, especially if there is an all-or-nothing expectation to succeed. An archer from South Korea, a diver from China, a judoka from Japan, rowing brothers from Croatia, a women’s soccer player from the United States. They are accustomed to winning.
The range of outcomes becomes binary, at least on the public’s report card: pass or fail.
These Olympics were made even more cruel by a year’s delay from the pandemic. At first the countdown was paused, then a full year was added to the clock. And strict protocols meant that travel parties to the Olympics were severely limited — none of the usual family and friends who typically provide mental support. The people who usually share the experience, the believers and the huggers, are far away.
And with competitors having limited time in the Olympic Village (most of them could not check in until five days before their competition and had to leave within a day of competing) and restricted interaction while they were there, the usual networks were snipped away. The absence of fans in the stands makes the sense of loneliness more stark. No one is there to cheer the effort, win or lose.
The surfer Carissa Moore, a four-time world champion, qualified for the Olympics more than 18 months ago. She was racked with nerves 20 minutes before her gold medal heat.
“I had to call home and be like, ‘OK, what do I do?’” she said. “They’re like, ‘You know what to do.’ I don’t think that that little self-doubt voice ever goes away. It’s just learning how to tell her: ‘Hey, just be quiet for a little bit, I got this.’”
Moore met the moment. She won.
Olympic lore is filled with names of athletes who seemed unfazed by the pressure to perform at the scheduled time, from Bonnie Blair to Michael Phelps, Shaun White to Chloe Kim, Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt.
Biles, until now.
Her decision to drop out of the team event, followed by a next-day decision to opt out of the all-around competition as well, spurred immediate conversations about mental health, about the weight of expectations, about the entire Olympic apparatus.
The Olympics, like all sports events, create more losers than winners, and some of the world’s most accomplished athletes could not connect expectations to Olympic gold medals — from Mary Decker to Tyson Gay, Michelle Kwan to Lindsey Jacobellis, Ivica Kostelic to the 2004 U.S. men’s basketball team.
Sergey Bubka broke the world record in the pole vault 35 times but won only one gold medal. The speedskater Dan Jansen fell down or came up short over three Olympics before winning gold in his final race. The 2004 U.S. men’s basketball team had a roster of N.B.A. stars and future Hall of Famers and still left Athens with the bronze.
It is happening in Tokyo, too. The biggest gold medal upset so far might have been in table tennis, where the Japanese team of Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito stunned China’s Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen in mixed doubles.
“There’s definitely pressure,” Xu said. “Every pair faces pressure, but our expectations and aims are different.”
That is true with a lot of Olympians. The swimmer Katie Ledecky arrived having won five gold medals and one silver in two previous Olympic Games. She earned silver in her first race in Tokyo, and already some wondered what was wrong.
On Wednesday, she finished fifth in one race, then won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters. She missed her moment, then met the next one, all in about an hour.
“People maybe feel bad for me not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world,” Ledecky said. “The most pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.”
That is what athletes often say. But it is becoming apparent that it may not be what they feel.