There were about 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competing. And they all felt some level of pressure from the outside, especially since there was an all-or-nothing expectation to succeed.

In such an environment, the range of outcomes becomes binary, at least on the public's report card : PASS OR FAIL.

TOKYO : The Olympics, for all their charm, are a rather cruel setup : They are a four-year time bomb. The world's best athletes are assigned a date and a time to perform.They prepare, often in solitude and anonymity, for a single moment on the calendar. It gets closer with each tick of the clock. 

As the countdown approaches zero, a sea of strangers expecting to be entertained turns its collective gaze in their direction, eager to dole out pass-fail grades. Reputations are made or broken. Lives are changed.

No sport event does it like the Olympics. '' The scale of everything is a bit hard,'' Naomi Osaka said, after losing a third-round tennis match days after lighting the Olympic Cauldron to open the Tokyo Games.

The schedule does not care if you are ready. Adam Ondra, regarded as the world's best climber, recognizes this even before he arrives to his Olympic moment, as sport climbing makes its debut.

''In the Olympics or any given competition, you're just told to climb-right now,'' Ondra said. ''And you're training for many weeks and months before, knowing that you have to be ready for that day.

In his usual outdoor realm of big rock walls, the culture works in reverse. The goal is to find the moment, not have it assigned to you. You tackle the climb at your pace, at a time of your choosing, on a day when conditions are perfect and body and mind are in sync.

If everything does not come together, if the moment feels wrong, you walk away.

At the Olympics, Ondra is scheduled to begin performing on August 3 at 5 p.m. Tick, tick, tock. The difference is not just aiming toward the moment. It is the audience that awaits.

'' It is making the biggest pressure that I've ever felt,'' Ondra said. ''Because normally, the only pressure I feel comes from myself.''

None of this is new to sports, but the dynamic is played out in real time across the Tokyo Olympics.

The American gymnast Simone Biles is only one example, the biggest among many.

At the team competition last Tuesday night, she tried one trick. She didn't feel it. She stopped. The moment felt wrong.

 The Olympics, like all sports events, creates more losers than winners, and some of the world's most accomplished could not connect expectations to Olympic gold medals - from Mary Decker to Tyson gay, Michelle Kwan to Lindsey Jacobellis, Ivica Kostelic to the 2004 U.S. men basketball team.

Sergey Bubka broke the world record in the pole vault 35 times but won only one gold medal. The speed skater fall down or came up short over three Olympics before winning gold in his final race.

The 2004 U.S. men's basketball team had a roster of N.B.A. stars and future Hall of Framers and still won only bronze.

It happened in Tokyo, too. The biggest gold medal upset so far might have been in table tennis, where the Japanese team of Jun Mitztani and Mima Ito stunned China's Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen in mixed doubles.

''There's definitely pressure,'' Xu said. '' Every pair faces pressure, but our expectations and aims are different.''

That is true with a lot of Olympians. The swimmer Katie Ledecky arrived having won five gold medals and one silver in two previous Olympic Games. She earned silver in her first race in Tokyo, and already some wondered what was wrong.

On Wednesday last, she finished fifth in one race, then won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters. She missed her moment, then met the next one, all in about an hour.

''People maybe feel bad for me not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world.,'' Ledecky said. '' The most pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.''

That is what athletes often say. But it is becoming apparent that it may not be what you feel.

The World Students Society thanks author John Branch.


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