Sport is an emotionally freighted activity, full of sound and fury signifying – oftentimes – quite a bit. 

With the Coronavirus scrambling the sporting calendar, we now have many sports competing out of their regular seasonal rhythms. It is quite the cornucopia, though at times confusing, as well. In North America, hockey, baseball, and basketball are all into their playoffs at the same time, while the NFL season is just getting underway. Yet I have to admit, with social distancing sweeping fans out of stadia like so many discarded beer cups, I have found even elite competition a bit arid when the sound and fury of crowd involvement is missing

I took in the Diamond League meet in Brussels a few weeks back where the One-Hour Run world track records were broken by Mo Farah and Sifan  Hassan. Then I watched the RunCzech 21.1 Km world road record attempts in Prague. And I have to admit having had a hard time holding on other than as a professional observer because the fan in me found the silence a little dry, a little vacant. Impressive though they were, the runs were missing the emotional underpinning established by an involved set of witnesses. 

As life is physics, the act of observation (The Observer Effect) changes that which is being observed. Rabid, knowledgeable fans can alter a sporting outcome every bit as much as the athletes themselves.

One of the things organizers tweaked with Eliud Kipchoge‘s second (and successful) sub-2 Hour marathon attempt at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in October 2019, was to take it off a fan-less racecar track in Monza, Italy, and stage it on a fan-lined out-and-back loop in Prater Park in Vienna, Austria. What had been a near-sub-2 in Italy now became a (relatively) easy 1:59 in Vienna. This wasn’t a lab experiment anymore, it had been turned into a theatrical performance.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, crosses the finish line during his attempt to run a marathon in under two hours in Vienna, Austria, October 12, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

We, humans, are emotional beasts. We talk about the give-or-take 4% edge the new shoe technology may be conferring on performances like Kipchoge’s, but don’t you wonder, too, what Mo Farah and Bashir Abdi could’ve done with some crowd energy in Brussels?

We have been watching the NBA playoffs at our house. The wife is an L.A. Lakers fan (going well), while I root for the Boston Celtics (not so well). At the NBA bubble in Disney World Orlando, officials have been pumping in crowd sounds in all their games for their TV presentations. Now the NFL is doing the same but limited to 70 decibels. When you add the announcer’s excitement, the fake crowd draws you in, even when you don’t see the people. But occasionally when the fan sounds drop out and you hear just the announcers, they sound weirdly out of place. 

I now wonder whether fans have had it wrong all along.  

In the theater, the audience drives every aspect of developing a performance. First and foremost, they are the consumers of the content presented. Without them, there would be no need for the show at all. But audience participation goes beyond that. Concern for the likes and prejudices of the audience also spurs producers in their choice of actors when casting a play, as they choose the actors who are more likely to attract an audience. And once seated, the audience provides the feedback which the actors use to focus and adjust their performances. Silence carries its own message as well as applause or laughter.

One of the problems the sport of athletics has had over the last two decades has been the decrease in fan support, in part because the producers have not been attentive to their audiences. Maybe World Athletics should begin pumping in fake crowd sounds during their Diamond League meets just to juice up the energy for their TV viewers. With so much else in the sport juiced up, why not the audience, too? After all, theater producers know enough to paper the house when not enough tickets are sold.



  1. While sports here are being played in front of cardboard cutouts with fictional piped in crowd noise…the Tour de France raced across France this month…and I mean raced…every stage an epic story, some calling it the best ever…thousands cheering from the roadsides…2nd rest day no covid positives after mandatory tests & the final time trial one for the history books with the yellow jersey changing hands. A victory for all those who love sport that this not only started after a delay but after 21 stages & 2,162 miles made it to Paris. Epic success. And to top it off, a week later – today – Julian Alaphilippe took the world championship title in Italy with crowds lining the climbs after riding in yellow for several stages in this years tour & losing the jersey due to a 20 second water bottle penalty. Stories, back stories, overcoming odds – all the stuff that makes fans watch. The tears & raw emotion of Julian on the podium as the French national anthem played in Italy is what spectators want to experience when cheering & watching exceptionalism. And soccer is beginning to let fans in in places in Europe as well. There is nothing normal about pushing that there is a new normal. Time to let the rest of us out to cheer…and out to play. It’s already happening.

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