How Team USA made these Beijing Olympics as fun as possible – Texarkana Gazette

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BEIJING — Life inside the Beijing Olympics bubble comes with a long list of rules. Wear a high-grade mask at all times. Disinfect your hands. Don’t stand within 6 feet of anyone, and don’t forget the daily COVID-19 test.
Phill Drobnick has been able to live with all those things during his time in China with the U.S. curling teams. But he drew the line at one demand: the placards that declared NO CHEERING at the Olympic arenas.
“All the venues have had signs,” said Drobnick, an Eveleth, Minn., resident and USA Curling’s director of coaching. “I’ve never been to a sporting event with no cheering, so it would have been hard not to.”
Drobnick didn’t want to push the boundaries too far, particularly in a no-nonsense country like China. Still, he didn’t come 6,000 miles to sit on his hands. And at these Olympics, where the venues are mostly empty and families are stuck at home, every sound counts.
Like last summer’s Tokyo Games, the Beijing Olympics are being held under strict COVID-19 prevention measures. No international fans were allowed to travel to China, and only a small number of carefully screened Chinese spectators have been permitted to attend events. Those who get a seat are asked to limit their noisemaking to applause, given that shouting can spread coronavirus as well as spirit.
That has eliminated the usual Winter Games soundtrack of cowbells, German drinking songs, chants in many languages and Kleintje Pils, the official pep band of the Dutch speedskaters. But the athletes and team staffs have done their best to fill the void.
The U.S. men’s hockey team showed up at big air snowboarding, speedskating and women’s hockey. American athletes and staff from several sports came to the women’s hockey gold medal game, sitting across the arena from Canada’s supporters and starting dueling chants.
Drobnick made it to many events, and he got as good as he gave. Friday, when the U.S. men played Canada for the bronze medal in curling, American athletes gathered in the stands — properly distanced, of course — and brought Drobnick’s athletes a little joyful noise.
“That was incredible,” said Chisholm, Minn., native John Shuster, skipper of the U.S. team. “It felt like our families were out there with us.”
Last summer’s Tokyo Games were not as tightly locked down as Beijing’s, but no outside spectators were permitted. The only people in the venues were members of Olympic delegations, including athletes, coaches, managers, team officials and executives, as well as volunteers and media.
That expanded slightly in Beijing. Though the spread of the omicron variant canceled plans to sell tickets, Olympics organizers selected a small number of people — anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand — to attend events. Beijing Olympics spokeswoman Yan Jiarong said most are local residents, students and young people who applied to receive tickets and went through stringent COVID-19 protocols.
Yan said organizers wanted to bring in a few fans to make the atmosphere as vibrant as possible. Yet the no-cheering rule kept the volume low. Spectators were given small flags to wave in lieu of yelling, and most complied, though some couldn’t stay quiet during strong performances by Chinese athletes.
The arenas weren’t completely silent. Despite the limited crowds, these Olympics still had pregame light shows, DJs, cheerleaders and Dance Cams. A crew of Chinese bagpipers performed before every session of curling. During hockey games at Wukesong Sports Centre, Dieter Ruehle — the organist for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers — played everything from “California Dreamin'” to the theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
The most heartfelt sound came from athletes and team staff from many countries who wanted to fill the hole left by absent families and friends. Shuster said going to other events and cheering for U.S. teams is always a special part of the Olympic experience, but it felt even more meaningful this time.
During his matches, Shuster said he recognized the voices of fellow U.S. Olympians rooting for his team. Some of them had traveled a long way within the Olympic sprawl to get there. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender was living in the athletes’ mountain village, but Shuster said she made it to three of his team’s final five games.
“That was not an easy trip,” he said. “She figured out how to get here because that’s the kind of teammates we are for each other on Team USA. I think those relationships and camaraderie, and the friendships with all those athletes we only see every four years, is some of my favorite stuff from the Olympics.”
Some athletes brought props. Team Germany carried a giant inflatable pretzel, which made appearances at several venues. Team Canada had a drum.
The U.S. athletes who came to the men’s bronze medal curling match were dressed head to toe in team gear, accented with necklaces, fright wigs, pompons and face paint in red, white and blue. Figure skater Jason Brown, who promised to get to as many events as possible after his own ended, brought a large American flag.
With the U.S. in a tight match, they couldn’t help but bend the rules. When Matt Hamilton made a sweet shot, they yelled, “Matt! Matt! He’s our man! If he can’t do it, no one can!”
Hamilton smiled and took a bow. “It’s amazing, the support we’ve had from these people,” he said. “They feel they’re part of a bigger team than just hockey or speedskating. We’re all part of Team USA.”
Drobnick said the groups he was with were not scolded when they yelled. But they also tried not to do it too much, knowing it ran afoul of protocols.
Saturday afternoon, he went to the National Speed Skating Oval for the men’s and women’s mass start races. Some of the U.S. skaters gave fist pumps in response to the cheers.
“It’s a pretty big facility, but going to the (start) line, you could definitely hear it,” skater Mia Manganello Kilburg said. “We kind of had our own little area where the U.S. was sitting. It was amazing to have that support, especially since we weren’t able to have spectators and family members.”
Could these Olympics have used more cowbell? Sure. Did they have spirit anyway? Yes, they did.
“We did just enough ‘USA’ chants for them to know we were here, and we’re behind them,” Drobnick said. “I think it has a huge impact when they hear people in the crowd supporting them.”
Print Headline: How Team USA made these Beijing Olympics as fun as possible
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