Running Repairs

Silence of the fans

Nick Cohen says silent sport needs crowds to give it meaning

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

You can judge a society by its attitude to crowds. In the mid-twentieth century they invoked fear of fascism, communism and collective hysteria. Fascist crowds were so “merciless”, wrote Theodor Adorno in 1951, because in their hearts they knew their ideas were false. “If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic.”

With the neo-liberal world triumphant at the millennium, the very notion of the vicious mob had fallen into disrepute. The Wisdom of Crowds, to take the title of a popular book from 2004, could be seen in the success of markets over central planners and in the triumph of democracy itself. Diverse groups of people were likely to make better decisions collectively than a single expert. Weren’t they?

The crowd is not an optional extra. It gives meaning to what might otherwise be an exercise in futile masochism

You would have expected the pendulum to have swung back by the 2020s: the takeover of democracies by authoritarian leaders, fake news on the web, and the great crash of 2008 made celebrations of collective wisdom moot. But the pendulum isn’t swinging in the pandemic. The clocks have stopped and the pendulum is nowhere to be seen. For now there are no crowds.

“I found the biggest challenge out there was the monotony of doing so many laps,” said the American runner Sara Hall after the London Marathon on 4 October. “That’s something we’ve never done for a really long race like the marathon. And having no crowd. It’s really quiet out there and I ran quite a bit by myself.”

The nearest any ordinary person can get to feeling like an athlete is to run a big city marathon. The crowd first bewilders and then inspires you. Strangers call out your name printed on your vest. As you approach the city centre, the noise grows and the music from street bands bounces off the walls on high buildings.

The crowd isn’t only on the pavements. You are one of tens of thousands of other runners. Your body may well be screaming at you to stop after 20 miles but the crowd forces you on, and fellow runners slap you on the back as you wilt. “You can do it.” “Nearly there, mate.” “Think of that first beer.”

The crowd is not an optional extra. It gives meaning to what might otherwise be an exercise in futile masochism. Sara Hall and the handful of elite runners who were able to participate in the 2020 London Marathon cannot afford to allow ennui to wreck lives dedicated to running. But even she was left deflated by running lap after lap round a deserted St James’s Park. For everyone else, the pandemic raises an existential question for sport and all collective activities. Without the crowd, what’s the point?

In a widely discussed article, the Guardian writer Barney Ronay wrote of how the pandemic had allowed super-rich football clubs to break their final connection with fans. The game is meant to be all about them. They’re the salt of the earth. The true heart of a club. Not so. Television is the true driver of sport and the pandemic has shown elite clubs can get by very nicely playing to empty stadiums. “The secret is out. We, the owners of football, appreciate your presence. But we do not require it.”

If that is true, I’m not sure it can last. We are seeing extraordinary results in English football, as the best sides aren’t just beaten but humiliated by lowly opponents. Doubtless the vast number of games which must be played to assuage the TV controllers partly explains the rout of elite teams. But just as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump visibly shrank when they could no longer feed off adoring crowds, so some elite athletes are no longer the players they once were without a crowd to give them sustenance and meaning.

There is as yet no evidence that viewing figures for the Premier League have fallen off since games began playing in empty stadiums. The Football 365 website noted, however, that the bare viewing figures don’t show how satisfied viewers and listeners are. Once the roar of the crowd told them a goal had been scored, six hit or foul committed before the commentator could speak. It told them to concentrate on the screen, and passed emotion from the stadium to the pub or living room.

No one can pretend the experience of watching sport is as good without the crowd providing atmosphere. Eventually, some fans, maybe many fans, will ask themselves why they are still watching at all.

You can hate and fear the crowd. You can write panegyrics to their wisdom and goodness. But for the first time since the emergence of mass society in the late nineteenth century you have to consider what happens when the crowd is gone.

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