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Since They Can't Be Inside, Fans Are Finding The Olympic Spirit Outside Game Venues

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Tokyo residents talk about the Olympics, their feelings typically include some version of, its complicated. Coronavirus cases are soaring. There are scattered protests. But at the same time, Team Japan is raking in a record number of gold medals - 21 as of today. So with no fans allowed inside venues, NPR's Leila Fadel reports on where people are finding the spirit of the Games.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Beyond the walls of the largely empty National Stadium, where track and field athletes are breaking world records, a line snakes past the Olympic Museum and down the block. People shade themselves from the searing sun with parasols to a chorus of cicadas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three.

FADEL: They want a picture with the Olympic rings statue. It's one of the few places where the fact that Tokyo is hosting the Games is on full display. Matsuo Kazumi is a judo fan. She and her husband, Kamboj Gulashan, both love swimming.

MATSUO KAZUMI: I want to see the swim, but I just see the TV (laughter).

FADEL: How long have you been waiting?

KAMBOJ GULASHAN: I don't know (laughter).

FADEL: Like, 10 minutes, half hour?

GULASHAN: Yeah, maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe more than?

FADEL: A long time.

They're back for the picture they did not get when they came here to see what they could see outside of the opening ceremony.

Was that nice?

GULASHAN: Yeah, it was nice, but it's better if we were inside, actually (laughter).

FADEL: How long do you think you're going to wait?

GULASHAN: Maybe one hour (laughter)?

FADEL: Nearby, Shiro Nagai stands with his daughter Lin and his wife Hitoma watching this crowd snap photos at the rings. For over a year, he'd pass by and see no one.

SHIRO NAGAI: I was driving around this place as a local. And the Olympic shops are there, and we didn't even bother to stop (laughter). But now, we are here to just take photo of bunch of crowds (laughter).

FADEL: Japanese Olympians are doing well, and they've been watching it on TV. So he stopped to show his 8-year-old daughter the rings.

NAGAI: I think it's a good experience for her to see Olympics. And, you know, I probably not going to see Olympics in Tokyo again. So, you know, it's - we should do it.

FADEL: And while the only place visible crowds gather - and when I say crowds, it's probably fewer than 200 people - is outside this stadium, the center point of these Games. A few cheerleaders show up at other venues, too.

HANNAH LEMMER: We're just supporting the athletes, enjoying the last night of gymnastics.

FADEL: That's Hannah Lemmer, a Colorado native, standing on the corner outside the gymnastics arena. She's been in Tokyo 11 years. A Japanese and American flag are unfurled in front of her. This night is when U.S. gymnast Simone Biles made her triumphant return to the Games. When the Olympics were delayed, Lemmer says she saw this venue and others sit empty.

LEMMER: It's been kind of sad to see this sit here, you know, for over a year not being used. And while there's a lot of, you know, depressing news that's going on, that is the reality. It's really fun to see the athletes come out and do their best.

FADEL: She's been on this corner with her partner every night of gymnastics. And every night, they run into Takayo Inagaki and his 6-year-old daughter Ali.

TAKAYO INAGAKI: Yeah, every day.

FADEL: Oh, really?

INAGAKI: Because she call me there, I want to go to there (laughter).

FADEL: She's recently started doing gymnastics, and her dad says she's obsessed. Ali draws new colorful posters for each visit. Tonight is a Japanese flag with a picture of a gold medal in honor of Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto. It says...

INAGAKI: We celebrate the gold medal.

FADEL: The four people on this corner exchange stories about the tickets they couldn't use, the athletes they love. It's exciting, they say, but bittersweet. The Games will end. People will go home. And the surge of coronavirus will likely continue, with more than 4,100 people positive in the city today.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOUSE SONG, "FIRESTARTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.