Tokyo 2020: 'Tokyo will seem like a super-wild rock concert!' - Zoe Smith on competing in a pandemic
The weightlifter Zoe Smith rose to prominence during the 2012 London Olympic Games, impressing with her displays at the ExCel Arena. She missed out on Rio due to a shoulder injury but she is looking forward to the prospect of competing in Tokyo, no matter how few people are in the arena to cheer her on.
If all goes according to plan, athletes striving for Olympic gold this summer will be cheered on by a small group of Japanese fans only. With essential rules brought in so the Olympic Games can go ahead safely despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, having some supporters is of course better than nothing. Those sportspeople used to gaining additional impetus and motivation from the crowd's noise could be forgiven for being apprehensive.
Not so weightlifter Zoe Smith. The qualification events for her discipline have already taken place - in an empty arena - and assuming all is well and she gets to Tokyo this summer, she will just be pleased to see other people.
"In London, because obviously everyone put their names in the ballot [for events and tickets], they had a bit of an intro at the beginning - this is where you need to be quiet, this is where we need to clap," she told Eurosport. "So they had a bit of practice at the beginning so maybe they'll do that, who knows? That'd be quite good. But I think just to have anyone there in terms of a crowd I think will be great. I think when you're walking up to the platform to lift anyway.
To me I'm so in the zone that it could be loud, it could be quiet, I wouldn't know.
"It's only when you put the bar down and you're relieved, you can soak it in a little bit. We had our final qualifier in Moscow at the beginning of [April] - and, again, no crowds. So that was no atmosphere whatsoever, so I think if we can get through that, I'm sure Tokyo will seem like a super-wild rock concert."
Smith, 27, has returned to competition within the 59kg category where she first rose to attention as a teenager, rather than the 64kg where she won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. She missed out on the Rio Games due to a shoulder injury, and because of UK Sport's cuts she used online crowdfunding as one of the methods to cover her costs to travel and compete in preparation for Tokyo.
Zoe Smith competing in London 2012
Image credit: Getty Images
Preparing for an Olympics during a pandemic is challenging. Smith has recently moved from Loughborough into her own flat in London, and acknowledges how lucky she is to have been able to set up her own gym in a garage and have online chats with her coaching team.
"It's been a really, really difficult year, actually," she admits. "Obviously it's been the same for everyone. I actually moved to London sort of like halfway during lockdown, which hasn't helped things at all, so it's been really difficult. I've basically been mostly training out of garages - 14 months now really, interspersed with occasional gym visits here and there but it's all been a little bit disjointed. I'm properly set up in my garage now, but it's been so difficult because there's no heat or light in there, so over winter it's been tricky to navigate.
I won't say it's been the best prep for an Olympic Games anyone's ever had, but at least we're back open now and I can knuckle down and focus on this last little home stretch."
Although weightlifting is a solo event, the last year has meant that Smith has particularly missed the support of her team-mates.
"I think just being on your own is just not the same. But now I think we've all done what we think we need to do to qualify, it's now going to be great to have - me and the three other girls who are hopefully going to be going - just be able to get together, just have that kind of excitement back and just geeing each other up and things. Those are all things I didn't realise how much I'd miss them until they were taken from me, I suppose you never really stop to appreciate them.
"It's great that we've been able to do a sport that you can do on your own...it's not something that requires the whole team to be there or whatever, it's not like you're going to miss that sort of team cohesion in terms of performance - but in terms of morale and things in the gym, you really do. It makes such a difference, just having people to struggle through a session with, it is good. I've definitely felt a difference in performance."
After Tokyo, Smith already has her eyes on the home Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year.
"I'm definitely hanging around for that one but beyond that I'd like to do Paris," she said. "I think the thing in weightlifting that finishes most people's careers is just how hard it is on the body, we get a lot of back injuries, knee and joint problems generally, and I've had my fair share. It's just how you manage that, I guess.
"I'm hoping to keep going for a little while. I just turned 27 the other day, and I'd like to at least make it to my 30s before I retire!"
Zoe Smith is a Whole Earth Team GB Athlete Ambassador and is supporting externalJamie Ramsay’s Whole Way to Stoke-y-o http://www.wholeearthfoods.com/teamgb/wholewayjourney/None10,000km cycle journey around the UK to gather support for Team GB at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.