Opinion | A stranger, quieter, clearer sporting world
Sport looks lonely with no crowds and athletes now have to find everything from within
No song, chant, cheer. No hiss, hoot, heckle. No worship, whistle, invasion. No mariachi band, flares, bigots. No shooting victim (1977 US Open) or streaker. Now sport is mostly elemental. Just you and the other guy. Just like it was when you were young.
Awful? Well, it’s not all bad. With no crowds, at least cricketers now know what shooters feel like.
Sport is so petrified of silence that in many places it uses piped-in sound, which is perfect for it’s as artificial as so much of sport already is. It’s just not for me. No crowd in the Indian Premier League (IPL) also means that during a telecast the commentary becomes even more prominent. God has a mean sense of humour.
Roger Federer must be grateful for his year off, for he would flinch from this idea of the empty church. Michelangelo’s heir isn’t ascending any damn ladders if no one’s watching. Usain Bolt, that delicious posturer, would have been half-a-second slower with no one to show off to. Everyone craves audible approval, but some feast more on an arena’s energy and atmosphere than others.
The absence of fans, with stadiums returned to being all stone and no vitality, initially brought nostalgia and there was nothing to do except retreat into history and imagine the crowds we would like to be part of.
Perhaps 1953, when 17,500 attended the Davis Cup final between Australia and America in Melbourne and outside the stadium a conductor clambered on to the roof of a stationary tram, glimpsed the scoreboard and relayed the news to his passengers. Perhaps 1926, when the great heavyweight Jack Dempsey was upset by Gene Tunney in pouring rain in front of over 120,000 people and then famously told his wife Estelle, on the phone from his hotel: “Honey, I just forgot to duck."
If we miss crowds for what they do to players—Italians threw coins in Björn Borg’s vicinity when he played their beloved Adriano Panatta—then we also miss what writers did for crowds. Take Franz Lidz in 1991 in Sports Illustrated, all vivid levity as he described the legendary 1926 tennis encounter—the so-called Match of the Century—between Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills on the French Riviera:
“Sausaged into the stands were Grand Duke Cyril of Russia, King Gustav of Sweden, the Duke of Sutherland, the Rajah and Ranee of Pudukota and others too important to mention. The rest of Riviera society scrambled to gain a view: Scions of white-gloved families clung to fences and climbed eucalyptus trees; they perched on branches like marmosets, and mocked the gendarmes climbing after them."
Now you climb a nearby fence and they will poke a swab longer than a cricket stump up your nose so you stay at home and marvel at the microphones in sport. At the Olympics they would have had over 4,000, including one under the balance beam, which records all kinds of artistic steps and giant leaps of acrobatic womankind.
The sound of sport has changed and the thunk of Novak Djokovic bouncing the ball (not interminably any more) echoed on Monday around a mostly uninhabited Foro Italico. Sport has a music of its own and now everything is clearer. Like a duel in a laboratory. There is no ambient noise so you can hear footballers hurling commands into the silence and the whirr of spin as racket brushes ball. In the strangest way, you feel closer to the game.
The emptiness hurts some athletes but not all. In golf, where you don’t so much play against another competitor but the course and the occasion, it helps lesser players when the biggest events have a stripped-down aura. No pressing crowds in the final stretch, no distracting roars, no sense of the enormity of what lies before you. A Major is less intimidating when it doesn’t feel like a Major.
Sport must feel strange to its professional practitioners but not altogether unfamiliar, for every athlete has been here before, to this place of meagre witnesses. Once, when fame was still an idea, they were nobodies watched by no one. Then, as now, the intensity comes from within.
Rahul Dravid, master at going deaf, told me last week that he never heard anything as loud as Eden Gardens in Kolkata on the final afternoon of that Test in 2001. And yet, he, understater-in-chief, qualifies it.
“It’s a nice feeling, but it’s not occupying your mind. You are shut into your world. You switch on and you switch off. You are focused on your job and you know how hard that is. When the bowler is running in, you are not listening to the rising noise but looking at his hand."
Of course everyone wants applause, but Dravid cuts to the core of it all. What are you playing for?
“For the contest."
And that hasn’t changed, it’s still there, it’s still about skill, competitiveness, ego, it’s just that there’s no one—teammate aside—to lift you, no underdog-loving shrieker in the 10th row, no face-painted chanting section to acquire energy from, no packed family box to sulk to on flat days, no loudmouth heckler to drive you, no exaggerated banner to inflate the ego, no validation. It’s all on you, and how appropriate is that.
The crowd will return and so will the spectacle as we knew it, but for now—even if it has taken a little getting used to—competitions have a new, stripped-down, make-up-free appeal. It finally feels as lonely as sport must truly be. Indeed, arguably the greatest athlete in the world has never heard applause. Climber Alex Honnold operates at such an elevated level that there’s no one there but him and the rock face. And startled birds to sing his praises.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.