That dissonance might be the most noticeable at beach volleyball, typically the party of the Summer Games. The discipline that’s here for a good time and a long time — 15 days of peak physical performance, but with toes-in-the-sand vacation vibes — needs energy to carry it through.
On a rainy Tuesday morning when the U.S. women took on Spain at 9 a.m. local time, that came from the athletes themselves, of course, and from a DJ spinning techno tunes for an empty stadium. Still quiet, but certainly not silent.
“Especially with no fans,” said Alix Klineman, one half of the USA's top team with April Ross, “to have good music going, it’s another source of energy.”
Maybe you’ve noticed the DJ on the broadcast, or wondered what it’s like to be an emcee introducing the players to a sea of plastic seats and coaches who know them already.
“You know, it's hard,” said Michael Rivas, one of four emcees working the beach volleyball tournament. “I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do this. We're all learning. This is the first time we're announcing in front of no audience.”
That’s not quite true for Jeremy Roueche, one of two DJs in Tokyo, who got his first taste of pandemic work in his other job — DJ'ing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
“During the preseason, the players would rock out a little bit more,” he said. “And then when the regular season started, I didn't get as much body reaction so it's like, ‘Is it me? Am I doing something wrong?’”
In addition to basketball, Roueche works the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, which earned him his first trip to the Olympics in 2016. Working the crowd at Copacabana Beach in Rio was a totally different task — a much easier one.
“I could have played anything and they clapped along, so you feel like you're the greatest DJ of all time,” he said. “They didn't care, they're like we’ll party to whatever.”
Here, it’s more about scoring the action of the match — lower energy at first, working up to a thumping beat if it’s close at the end — mixing electronic, EDM, hip-hop, some pop favorites. All, of course, while still keeping it appropriate for these cautious COVID times and not drawing too much attention to the strange circumstances.
“So I'm not going to do a lot of songs that say clap your hands, make noise,” Roueche said.
From his work with AVP, Roueche knows the U.S. athletes well, and their music tastes. He could cater to their preferences, and would if he was working their practices — which are held on a different court in the same complex — but in a game time setting, he wouldn’t want to inadvertently influence the game by turning up the Skrillex for Ross. Besides, then you’re starting to wade into potentially divisive waters.
“I actually like a lot of dubstep,” Ross said. “But a lot of people don’t like that. My partner doesn’t like that, so I try not to request it.”
“Whenever we live together,” Klineman said, “I'm like, can you play music with lyrics?”
Including entertainers on the extremely short list of people who get to watch these games live in Tokyo might seem silly on TV, but it makes sense. Part of it is for the broadcast, giving beach volleyball a similar sound to what it’s had in other Olympics. But it’s also about the sport itself. The athletes are accustomed to a certain gameday soundtrack to reflect the stakes. Recreating that in the absence of audience cheers is part of the competitive integrity of trying to pull this whole thing off under the circumstances.
Just don’t tell the DJs how much the stars of the show are counting on them.
“I’m now nervous about that, now that you brought it up,” Roueche said. “I wasn't thinking about that before.”
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