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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Thailand, Philippines and India connect to spectator-less Olympics

Social media and medal haul keep Asian audience engaged

Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz celebrates after a lift at the Tokyo Olympics. She won the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Tokyo Olympic Games are nearly halfway to the Aug. 8 closing ceremony, defying the unprecedented one-year postponement and a ban on virtually all spectators due to the pandemic as well as the scorching heat and rising coronavirus cases in the host city.

The Games seemed destined to be unpopular, with many Japanese opposing the event given deep concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19. But once the competitions began, the Tokyo Olympics drew substantial Asian audiences as the region's athletes achieved great performances. This partly offset a viewership decline in the U.S., where an estimated 17 million people watched the opening ceremony -- down 36% from the kickoff to the Rio de Janeiro Games five years ago, The Associated Press reports.

How have Japan and other Asian countries watched the Games so far? Here are five things to know about interest in Asian countries toward the event.

"The most digitally engaged games": IOC

The International Olympic Committee described the Tokyo Olympics as "the most digitally engaged Games ever."

Organizers said traffic on their website and mobile application is on a "record pace," surpassing 50 million people since the start of the Games, or double in comparison to Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Social media has become a key platform, with Olympic-related posts by organizers generating more than 2 billion engagements so far.

"We've seen strong engagement to date with the youth of the world," said Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services. The group's TikTok videos have drawn 1.4 billion views while Instagram followers are 12 times above their average rate, he said, for an increase in the millions.

Organizers think new sports have contributed to that, with skateboarding, surfing and others included in the Olympics program for the first time. The new programs may draw young people, who are more sensitive to social media.

Asian highlights of the Games

As of July 30, India has won a medal while members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have compiled five. Though the numbers appear modest compared with Western nations, some of these countries witnessed the birth of world-class star athletes.

Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz won her country's first Olympic gold medal ever, while taekwondo competitor Panipak "Tennis" Wongpattanakit earned Thailand's first gold at the Tokyo Games.

The victories cheered a gloomy public in both countries, as COVID-19 ravages Southeast Asia and India. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha congratulated Panipak and urged citizens to cheer on the country's athletes during the Olympics, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said.

In Hong Kong, fencer Edgar Cheung Ka-long won the city's first gold medal in decades. His victory was witnessed by many ordinary Hong Kongers who celebrated at public viewings.

There are more Asian hopefuls to come.

On Saturday, Nesthy Petecio of the Philippines won the women's featherweight boxing semifinal, clinching at least a silver medal and putting the country on the brink of its second gold medal at the Tokyo Games.

Indian boxer Lovlina Borgohain is guaranteed to win at least a bronze medal after she defeated Chen Nien-chin of Chinese Taipei in the quarterfinals of the women's welterweight category on Friday. All boxing semifinalists receive medals, so she is set to follow weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won a silver for India in the women's 49 kg competition on July 24.

Thai boxer, has one hope on 60 kg women boxing Sudaporn Seesondee, in the women's 60 kg category, need to win a quarterfinal bout to guarantee at least an Olympic bronze medal.

How Asia watches the Olympics

Though detailed figures are unavailable for now, the Olympics have drawn attention in many Asian countries. More viewers engage with the Games online as athletes perform.

Panipak's Facebook fan page now has 95,000 followers, more than double the number before she won the Olympic title. As Panipak landed in Thailand with the gold medal, TV broadcasters scrambled to interview Tokyo 2020s the first champion from ASEAN. Apart from the live programs, TV stations run the video online. Channel 3, the leading private broadcaster, has attracted 477,000 views since July 25.

Hidilyn Diaz has more than 240,000 Instagram followers. After Diaz's triumph, the front pages of newspapers in the Philippines featured her historic achievement.

In India, a country of 1.3 billion people, #Olympics2020 ranked second on the list of Google search trends with 25,000 tweets Friday evening. #Badminton came third as the country hopes for a medal from reigning world champion P.V. Sindhu. She reached the women's singles semifinals after defeating home favorite Akane Yamaguchi in straight games in the quarterfinals Friday. Sindhu won silver in the Rio Olympics.

Many Indians are struggling to stay tuned for the Games due to the three-and-a-half-hour time difference with Tokyo.

"I have missed some interesting events involving Indian athletes as they started too early in the morning," said Ashish Mamgain, 36, a New Delhi resident. "Also, by the time I return home from office late in the evening, there isn't much left to watch."

Singaporeans are afraid hopes for medals have almost vanished as swimmer Joseph Schooling, the city-state's first-ever Olympic champion in 2016, failed to qualify into the semifinals of the men's 100-meter butterfly on Thursday. Still, "Joseph Schooling" was trending on Singapore Twitter, ranking fourth on the list Friday evening.

Mediacorp's Channel 5, an English broadcaster in Singapore, airs more than 200 hours of coverage throughout the Games. Sports officials and politicians have tried to drum up support for the city-state's athletes by taking to social media to express their best wishes.

"We are all with you," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a video message to encourage the competitors.

How has the Japanese public responded so far?

The Olympics started amid concerns among the general public in Japan. Nikkei on Monday (July 26) reported that 31% supported cancellation or postponement while 56% answered organizers' measures to prevent COVID from being brought in from overseas are insufficient.

However, tweets in favor of Tokyo Olympics have come to outnumber negative ones, according to Nikkei's analysis.

Meanwhile, 56.4% of the population watched the opening ceremony, according to TV audience rating research company Video Research. The rate reflects the households that watched the broadcast in real-time.

The viewership recorded 61% at one time, dwarfing the recent successful TV drama series in the country Hanzawa Naoki at just over 30%.

As of July 31, the Japan team has gained 17 gold medals, sandwiched with China and U.S. According to organizers, 111 million Japanese have now watched some part of the Olympic Games.

Fans swarmed into some official Tokyo 2020 shops to purchase Olympics goods after The Games began. Tokyo 2020 online shopping site was temporarily closed down last week due to a surge in access.

What is the lesson from the most digitalized Olympics?

The digitalized Olympics have narrowed the distance between athletes and fans, which is especially important for the mostly spectator-less Tokyo Olympics. Many athletes have sent messages to fans, showing what they are experiencing through short videos during their stay in the Olympic Village.

But this closeness can backfire, as some Olympic athletes have experienced bullying on social media. Japanese table tennis player Jun Mizutani revealed on Twitter that he was receiving negative direct messages on social media. Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami, who finished fifth in the individual all-around event, also told reporters that she had received negative comments on social media.

The mental health of athletes became a greater concern during the Tokyo Olympics, especially after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from major events. During the Games, organizers have set up a clinic with services that include psychiatric counseling and a hotline that is available at all hours.

Athletes today can connect instantly with fans from all over the world. But it also means they are exposed to verbal abuse directly. The Tokyo Olympics may have offered a lesson on how vulnerable athletes can be.

Additional reporting by Dylan Loh and Kentaro Iwamoto in Singapore, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok

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