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U.S.’s Jenny Simpson won't let half-empty Rio stadium dull historic Olympic moment

Jenny Simpson became the first U.S. Olympian to medal in the 1500 meters on Tuesday, but she did so in front of a sparse Rio Olympic Stadium crowd—a recurring theme for track and field athletes.

RIO DE JANEIRO — American middle distance runner Jenny Simpson sees only the track, an eight-lane 400-meter oval, whether in her hometown of Boulder, Colo. or at the Olympic Stadium here in Brazil. That sameness provides a comfort that she likens to the scene in the movie Hoosiers, when actor Gene Hackman, portraying a small-town basketball coach, shows his team that the basket in the big arena for the state finals is 10 feet high, just like in their own little gym back home, in order to quell their nerves.

“I look at a track,” says Simpson, “and it’s home for me.” 

On Tuesday night at the Rio Olympic Stadium, Simpson won a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters, becoming the first U.S. woman in history to medal in that event. Simpson, who turns 30 next week, ran not only with tactical brilliance but also with career-defining speed. After the field dawdled through the first 700 meters, Simpson ran her final 800 meters in one minute, 59 seconds, faster than she has ever run an 800-meter race in her life. She passed a flagging Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands in the final 30 meters and nearly caught favored Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, who was beaten by Faith Kipyegon of Kenya.

Steps past the line, Simpson put her hands to her head, almost as if in shock. It was an emotional race; Simpson has been one of the two best female 1,500-meter runners in the U.S. for half a decade (the other, Shannon Rowbury, finished fourth Tuesday night, .52 seconds behind Simpson) and also a forceful critic of doping in her sport. (Which does not mean that she is verifiably clean, because no athlete can prove that.) In front of Simpson on Tuesday, Dibaba’s exceptionally fast times and association with recently arrested coach Jama Aden; and Kipyegon’s immersion in the Kenyan anti-doping system, which has come under scrutiny for lack of effective testing, lent an air importance beyond mere times and medals.

“I’ve done it honestly and clean and with just everything that’s inside my own body being expressed out on the track,” said Simpson. “And to me that’s beautiful.”

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With all of this emotion, it’s possible that Simpson didn’t notice that the 60,000-seat Olympic Stadium was no more than one-third full for the race. And she might not have heard, from the warm-up track or the pre-race call room, the voices of the public address announcers echoing throughout the cavernous structure in Portuguese and English. And she might not have noticed that vast sections of the stadium were left almost empty, a sea of blue chairbacked sears laying idle in the night.

But on the evening of Simpson’s greatest performance, praiseworthy and historic, there were far too few live witnesses to the event. Five days into the nine-day track and field competition in Rio, one of the traditional pillars of the Games, the lack of spectators in the building has sadly become a storyline that parallels the exquisite work of the athletes. Only once has the stadium been close to full: On Sunday night, when Usain Bolt won his third consecutive Olympic 100 meters. And even then, there were at least hundreds—and possibly thousands—of empty seats. At a press briefing five days before the start of the Games, IAAF president Sebastian Coe said, “No, I’m not confident that we’re going to have full houses.” That reticence has been proven valid.

Tuesday night’s crowd was the worst yet for a night session, and anecdotally, the worst for an Olympic track and field evening session, dating back to at least Barcelona in 1992. Notably, even in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, which are not generally remembered fondly, track and field sessions were sold out in both the morning and evening. On Monday night, Bolt received his gold medal, and Brazilian pole vaulter Thiago da Silva won his, in a stadium that was far less than half full.

Athletes who competed on Tuesday night were not quick to complain about the lack of attendance. They are athletes, trained to ignore external distractions. Yet they notice.

“I like to enjoy what I’m doing out there,” said U.S. javelin thrower Kara Winger, who failed to qualify for the final in her event. “So I’m pretty aware of what’s going on in the stadium. But I’m big fan of [Canadian high jumper] Derek Drouin, and he won a gold medal. And Jenny Simpson got a bronze in a race where I know she was trying to wrap her head around some of her competitors. I thought it felt pretty electric during those events, even if it was a small crowd.”

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High jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, who took the silver medal behind Drouin, said, “You can’t compare these crowds to London. London was full every time.” And that’s true, the track crowds at the 2012 Games in London were exceptional. The same was true four years earlier in Beijing. In 2004, track and field crowds in Athens waxed and waned depending on whether Greek athletes were competing, but were ever never as sparse as those in Rio. In 2000, Sydney’s 110,000-seat stadium was often riotously packed.

There are numerous potential reasons for Rio’s poor attendance. Tickets are expensive, ranging from approximately $80 to more than $200 on some nights and $120 to more than $300 on others; this in a country that is in a deep economic recession. The stadium is in a hardscrabble neighborhood far from other Olympic venues; many of the homes on nearby streets have razor wire fencing and there is a massive police and military presence around the stadium that creates some air of safety but dulls the fun factor. Health and safety warnings might have caused track fans from the United States, Europe and Asia to stay away.

Beyond all that, Brazil has little historical passion for track and field. On Tuesday, the host nation’s women’s soccer team was beaten by Sweden in a packed stadium just a few hours before the track competition commenced.

It’s also tempting to suggest that the poor attendance is somehow a reflection of track and field’s struggles with doping problems, but that is probably more metaphorical than real. Still, the empty seats could be a dispiriting preview of what the sport will look like when Bolt retires after the 2017 world championships. He runs here again Thursday and it’s likely the crowd will approach—if not achieve—capacity.

Simpson isn’t likely to let the attendance dull her pride at taking the 1,500 bronze. She has been a contender on the world stage since 2011, when she won the world championship in Daegu, South Korea. She followed that up two years later with a silver at the worlds in Moscow, but failed to advance out of the semifinals in London, where Rowbury finished fifth. Rowbury subsequently took down the American record, and last year Simpson lost a shoe two laps into the world championship final in Beijing and finished 11th.

Simpson won the U.S. Olympic Trials and advanced to the final here on Sunday night, finishing fourth behind Dibaba in her semifinal. After that semi, she lobbed a grenade at Dibaba, by way of a thinly veiled reference to Aden. “I think that you know a tree by the fruit that it bears,” Simpson said. “And if a tree bears sour fruit, then the fruit around it are likely infected. And so I live my life that way in every way, not just through doping. And so I think that if WADA is on the case, they’ll find what they need to find. I hope so.”

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The final was run like championship 1,500-meter finals are often run: Very slowly, then very quickly. The field dawdled through the opening 400 meters in 76 seconds, more than five-minute mile pace. The pace didn’t quicken until Dibaba exploded to the lead after the 700 meters and ran a suicidal 58-second 400 meters, blowing the race open. Simpson covered that move as best she could. “My coaches told me, when somebody jumps to the front, look at where the medals are and go get ‘em,” said Simpson. She moved into fourth place on the final turn, with Rowbury also chasing, and then caught Hassan in the stretch, pawing at the air and grimacing, fighting the pain of such a searing final half mile.

It is the part of the race that she loves best. “The last 100 meters, when I was running my guts out,” said Simpson. “That’s my favorite part of the race. I love this sport, I love how competitive it is and I love the 1,500 meters, which I think is the toughest race in the sport.” Simpson finished in 4:10.53, a slow time in a strange race where time didn’t matter at all.

Simpson beamed at the telling, an athlete at peace with her profession and her achievement. She was asked about the empty seats, and took a long pause before answering. “I can’t say that the lack of a crowd is important to me,” Simpson said. “This is a beautiful sport; there are no style points. And I hope that for every super high-level meet like this, that the stadium is full.”

That, for now, is a wish deeply and profoundly unfulfilled.