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These Olympics didn’t get any less strange when the first medal was won

China’s Yang Qian won the gold medal in 10-meter air rifle but didn’t seem certain of it at first. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
4 min

TOKYO — The first medals of these most unusual Olympics came not with the usual roar Saturday morning but with the click of an air rifle echoing through a shooting hall filled with 50 rows of mostly empty blue seats. The noise was the kind a roofer makes when tacking nails through a shingle.

China’s Yang Qian didn’t seem to know what to do the moment she won gold. She stepped away from the shooting podium at the Olympics’ traditional opening event — the women’s 10-meter air rifle — and looked around. A screen high above her head showed her final shot had splattered more of the target’s middle than that of Russia’s Anastasiia Galashina, apparently meaning the first gold medal was hers.

But she seemed unsure. There was no confirming boom from the crowd; there were just tentative claps from the handful of her Chinese teammates in the seats and finally raised arms from her coach. Yang shrugged. She smiled. The first medal of the silent Olympics would not be won with anything more than demure delight.

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Shooting is never one of the best-attended of Olympic events. This shooting venue is tucked off in the city’s distant suburbs, along a tiny lane, far from the cries of protest that trickled through the previous night’s Opening Ceremonies. The women’s 10-meter air rifle is about as quiet an event as you can find, even in regular times. All of which made the new, socially distant, spectator-less normal seem not all that new or abnormal.

The shooters tried to act as if nothing were different, and in a way, nothing was. The bronze medalist, Nina Christen of Switzerland, said afterward that she has become accustomed to the social distance of her competitions in the past year. She had never competed in an Olympics before. She didn’t know what kind of noise she was missing.

When Yang’s victory was confirmed, the three medalists posed together, their rifles slung over their shoulders, as photographers gathered in the hall’s front row, pushing together to snap shots of the winners. You could hear the whirring of the camera shutters from halfway up the stands.

Then, just as quickly as the first medal had been won, the shooters were hurried off the stage, the three winners locked in a small, secluded room to the stage’s left. Christen, who as the bronze medalist would be given the Olympics’ first medal, was led by an official to a poster attached to the room’s wall.

The poster had an illustrated story of how a medal ceremony would work in these new, silent, distant Olympics. It described the way she, Yang and Galashina would walk out, specifying how far apart from each other they would stand, and explained how the medals and accompanying bouquets would be presented on trays rather than draped around their necks. The poster showed how they were supposed to put the medals on themselves.

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On the stage outside, volunteers scurried to transform the shooting stage into a medal stand. Chairs were removed, and one of the wide, blue podiums designed to encourage distance among the medalists was rolled into place. The hall’s speakers softly played “We Will Rock You” and then “We Are the Champions.”

Christen turned away from the poster and saw International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach standing nearby in a black suit. She instantly realized that because these were the Olympics’ first medals he would be the one to present them.

“That was pretty cool because he is such [an important] person,” she said. “It was going to be an honor to get the medal from him.”

A few minutes later, Bach walked onto the stage with Vladimir Lisin, the president of the International Shooting Sport Federation. There was little noise aside from the recorded instrumental music following them and the shutters of the photographers’ cameras. The three winners followed, taking their places, far apart behind the podium. Bach held the medals on what looked like a black lunch tray and walked awkwardly toward the podium; Christen stepped onto the platform and gently picked up her medal. Lisin followed with a tray holding the bouquets. Christen took one of those as well.

The mask Bach wore was black.

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It was an odd moment, filled with much of the tension of these Games: Bach, who is wildly unpopular in Japan for his insistence on holding the Olympics despite rising numbers of coronavirus cases, was handing out medals on a tray to the first winners, who included a Russian whose country has been banned from these Olympics for a systemic doping scandal in 2015. Complicating things was the fact that Lisin is Russian, too.

Later, the three women sat at a news conference in a small tent, and Yang said she was glad her “many trials and training” had paid off at her first Olympics. She explained how she keeps her eyes closed until the moment she shoots as a “personal habit.”

But there on the podium they all stood, six feet apart, in the quiet hall as the flags of the three medalists’ countries were raised by a pulley, a white flag with an illustration of the Olympic flame replacing Russia’s. For a moment, Christen was tempted to move closer to the other two medalists, but then she noticed that the distance kept her from crying as she watched the Swiss flag rise with the others.

Not crying seemed the right decision to make as the first medals were quietly celebrated in a shooting hall filled with 50 rows of empty blue seats in the silent Olympics.

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