Welcome to the extra innings of our summer series on “Sound and Sport”! In today’s bonus post, David Hendy discusses his recent Noise broadcast for BBC Radio 4 on the sounds of Olympic crowds. For an instant replay of our summer series click Kariann Goldschmitt’s “The Sounds of Selling Out?: Tom Zé, Coca-Cola, and the Soundtrack to FIFA Brazil 2014” (August), Josh Ottum‘s “Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark” (July), Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali” (June), and Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship” (May). Following Hendy’s post on Olympics past, give Andrea Medrado’s podcast a spin for a listen into its future: “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City.” And now, David Hendy. Of course, the crowd goes WILD. —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
I didn’t get to go to the London 2012 Olympics or Paralympics. Alas, my number didn’t come up in the lottery for seats. So, like millions of others, my family and I watched – and heard – the sporting action on television or, occasionally, on our smart phones. A pretty good experience it was, too: the BBC for instance gave British viewers 24 live streams of high-definition coverage for the Olympics; Channel 4’s approach to the Paralympics was smaller-scale but packed a similar punch in terms of imagery. A key part of the “enhanced experience,” however, was the acoustic quality of the broadcasts. When the Olympics had last been staged in London, during the post-war austerity of 1948, television footage sounded like this:
“1948 Olympics Clip” courtesy of Peregrine Andrews and Alan Hall, Falling Tree Productions Limited
Just about the only things viewers would’ve heard were the voices of the commentators and the distant, muted sounds of the crowd.
That evocative archive recording was used in a recent radio documentary by the British sound designer Peregrine Andrews. The programme explored just how much had changed in location recording techniques by 2012. This time around, Peregrine pointed out, some 4,000 microphones were in position at the various venues: not just suspended in the air above or placed on the trackside, but bonded directly onto the beams in the gymnastic hall, say, or attached to the targets used in archery. Competitors everywhere were heard in extreme close-up – every shift of a hand or foot, every creak of wood, every grunt or groan made audible to the viewer at home.
This wasn’t just hyperbole. Newspapers quickly latched on to the phenomenon, dispatching reporters to measure decibel levels and offer their readers guides to the “best” venues for hearing the sound of the crowd. They pointed out that an airplane taking off produces about “140 decibels of noise”– and that the cheers echoing around the soaring curves and low ceilings of the Olympic Velodrome reached very nearly the same level.
“The roar was thrilling, to the point of pain,” claimed one reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail. “If I had endured another minute, I am sure we’d all have gone deaf.” Zaha Hadid’s gloriously sweeping Aquatics Centre provided perhaps the most intense acoustics of all. Whenever the 17,500 fans inside cheered, the “guttural roar” was simply “ear-drum shattering,” declared the London Evening Standard. The main Olympic stadium was open air, of course, making the sound less intense. But even here the Globe and Mail journalist wrote of a “tsunami of noise” building in waves; another of the stadium’s “sonic boom”; yet another of how Usain Bolt’s 100 metres final produced a roar from the crowd which, measured at 107 decibels, beat that of your average pneumatic drill.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that London 2012 was dubbed the loudest ever Olympics. For the main stadium’s designer Rod Sheard had always conceived it with acoustics firmly in mind. He’s quoted in a piece in It’s Nice That: “The athletes are so focused, it’s very easy for them not to hear the crowd. . .we’ve got to make it really loud for them to get any benefit from it.” And so the 80,000 people inside were packed as closely together as possible with the roof shaped to rebound their roar back into the heart of the space, generating maximum volume.
As my producer Matt Thompson and I discovered when making our recent BBC radio series Noise: a Human History (available on iTunes), this contemporary attempt to revel in the roar of the spectators throws up some striking – and very ancient – parallels. The most obvious is that of the Colosseum in Rome, which, some 2000 years ago, provided what Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard have described as “a brilliantly constructed and enclosed world, which packed emperor, elite and subjects together, like sardines in a tin.”
The acoustic qualities of ancient amphitheaters like this – their ability to amplify the slightest sounds – is still pretty unnerving if you get the chance to witness it for yourself, as Matt and I did when recording, at the Colosseum and at the ancient Greek theatre of Epidaurus:
In these cauldrons of concentrated sound, the roar of the spectators took on a collective force of its own – a volatile quality rich with cultural and political repercussions. During plays in Greek theatres, audiences were rarely hushed and reverential. They were talkative and unruly, sometimes showing their disapproval by drumming their heels against the benches, sometimes disrupting the action by shouting and jeering. The chorus below would address spectators directly, as if facing a jury. Audience participation was as much a part of a performance as were the actors in the orchestra or on the stage. And when it came to the Roman Games later held at the Colosseum or in even larger venues such as the nearby Circus Maximus, the barrage of sound could reach intimidating levels of ferocity.
Roman arenas were not just sporting venues, of course. They were designed for political theatre. Vespasian had ordered the Colosseum to be built to help wipe away the memory of his predecessor Nero and his notorious private pleasure palace the Golden House. Now Roman citizens had a pleasure palace all of their own. The ruling elite had also created a place for the ostentatious display of imperial power and generosity, a bribe for the people’s continuing loyalty. Which is why, if the crowds were sometimes a little slow in showing their appreciation, paid stooges dotted about the arena would start applauding – or booing – at all the right moments, while soldiers would strike down any member of the audience who lagged in their cheering. But, as in the Greek theatres, Rome’s audiences were never entirely under the cosh; they could occasionally give voice to underlying discontentment. And when so many people were so tightly packed together, sheer proximity and the contagious quality of sound meant any turn in the mood would have been quick to make itself felt.
One startling example of this came in 55BC when Julius Caesar’s powerful rival Pompey put on a show in the Circus Maximus that featured the slaughter of elephants – something the crowd lapped up until the very moment they heard the poor creatures’ death throes. In episode 9 of Noise: a Human History, I speculated on what it might’ve been like – and recalled the unsettling outcome:
In London in 2012, we had our very own Pompey, in the form of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. He’d turned up to the Paralympics to award some medals. And as his name was announced the stadium resounded with loud booing for the first time all summer:
Why did 80,000 people all suddenly decide to boo as one? Because, one commentator quipped, there were only 80,000 people in the stadium.
Politicians as a class are inevitably unwelcome in a place of entertainment, their presence too obviously betraying an attempt to siphon off a little of the goodwill. Osborne’s particular problem, though, was that he wasn’t just any old politician. He was from the ruling Conservative party, which, true to its ungenerous instincts, had just cut welfare benefits for Britain’s disabled people. In the circumstances, turning up to the Paralympics seemed an entirely predictable affront to most of those in the stadium – one that Osborne was thick-skinned and numb-skulled enough not to have predicted for himself.
All this might seem, well, unsporting. But booing is part of the civic dialogue. It brings politicians face-to-face with their electorate. It forces them to feel the scorn and anger of those they’ve let down. The moment passes, of course. Clips briefly went viral on YouTube, and were soon forgotten. Osborne himself is still in office, overseeing the ruination of the British economy through his programme of austerity. But for a delicious few seconds we were reminded of the inherently public nature of sound. We heard – we felt – the role of listening to one another, not as a passive thing but as a powerfully collective, inter-subjective, electrifying, communicative act.
Featured Image: Crowd: London 2012 Olympic Stadium, Image by Flickr User Flickmor
David Hendy is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex, England. He wrote and presented the recent 30-part BBC radio series Noise: a Human History, which remains available to download on ITunes. The accompanying book, Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening, will be published in the US in October 2013 by Harper Collins. He’s the author of Radio in the Global Age (2000), Life on Air: a History of Radio Four (2007), and Public Service Broadcasting (2013), and contributes regularly to radio programmes.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“We wanted to tell stories about sound”: Opening Ears Through the “Everything Sounds” Podcast–Craig Shank and George Drake Jr.
Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest–Jonathan Sterne
Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship— Melissa Helquist
Editor’s Note: Today, SO! kicks off our summer series on “Sound and Sport,” an interrogation of the roles that sound and listening play in the interconnected aspects of many sports: athletic skill, spectatorial experience, laws of physics challenged and exploited, and politics expressed and created. Often, the true play in sports involves power–and sound is a key venue to help us understand its flows and snags, and parse out the actual winners and losers. And, perhaps more directly than other venues, sports is a heightened arena that helps us understand just how important sound is in our everyday lives, even if (and especially because) we take it for granted.
One of my favorite personal “sports metaphors” for sounds’ unacknowledged centrality involves the precise 3.5 seconds I snowboarded with an iPod before I hit an ice patch full speed and had one of the worst falls I have suffered in my 15+ years of the sport. While I was laying on the hard packed snow gasping for breath and trying to piece together what happened, I realized exactly how much I depended on my listening to provide me with crucial, even-life saving, information. With my ears overwhelmed with treble-y punk, I had charged straight into an icepatch that I would have deftly avoided as soon as I heard the inevitable and unmistakeable scratching sound signalling its location. That kinesthetic lesson has continued to inform my everyday, every day since it happened and has led me to ever deeper understandings about sound’s power and the various forms of power that it clarifies–and are clarified by it in turn. I hope that this series will do the same for you, but without the blood and the bruises, even as some of our writers will remind you about the complex and dubious relationship sports can draw between “pain” and “gain.”
Batting first up on our line-up is Melissa Helquist, who describes how the Paralympic sport Goalball challenges the norms of the spectator/athlete relationship. Look for a post on Muhammad Ali in June (Tara Betts), skateboarding in July (Josh Ottum) and an all-out Olympic extravaganza in August, including a podcast discussing the sonic transformations of Brazil’s favelas in anticipation of the world’s ears in 2016 (Andrea Medrado). This summer, it is Sounding Out! FTW. –-J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
it’s oh so quiet
it’s oh so still
you’re all alone
and so peaceful until
you ring the bell
you shout and yell
hi ho ho
you broke the spell
–Bjork, “It’s Oh So Quiet”
During the London 2012 Olympics, the Copper Box venue, which hosted handball, was dubbed “the box that rocks.” The moniker was also, perhaps, a way to drum up interest in handball, a still obscure sport. And indeed, raucous spectators and the pulse and bounce of balls and shoes created a sonic spectacle.
When the Paralympics began a few weeks later, much was made of the transformation of “the box that rocks” into “the box that rocks you to sleep.” The game that supposedly will rock you to sleep is Goalball.
Goalball is a 3-a-side game, played in two 12-minute halves. The offensive team rockets the ball down the court (it must be rolling by mid-court), trying to gain the low and wide net on the other side. As the ball rolls toward the net, the defending players lie on their sides in front of the net, blocking the ball with their bodies. As the ball is pummeled back and forth across the court, it jingles—a simple, clear bell emanating from eight holes in the ball’s surface. In this sport, sound is quite literally a game changer.
All goalball players are blind or low vison and wear blackout eyeshades to equalize the playing field and to ensure that any residual vision doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay’s sound. A pre-game equipment check includes referees ensuring that eyeshades don’t let in any light. Penalties include touching one’s eyeshades or making noises that disrupt the other team’s ability to hear the movement of the ball.
Goalball, a game first invented as a way to rehabilitate soldiers blinded in WWII, has been a Paralympic sport since 1976. It is one of the few sports designed specifically for blind athletes, rather than adapted from an existing sport. It is a game of sound and touch, a contrast to the visual perception typically associated with team-based ball games. The game, like many others in the Paralympics, expands the sensory experience of sport. The court’s borders are demarcated with tape-covered twine. Sonically, players orient themselves by calling out the position of the on-coming ball, rapping knuckles on the floor, and of course the jingle of the ball.
“Goalball” Courtesy of Perkins School for the Blind Archives
The game is high impact; at the Paralympic level, the ball is thrown at speeds up to 60mph. Players launch the ball with high-velocity spins, something like a cross between a discus throw and bowling. Defenders block the ball with their entire bodies—hands, feet, torso. The game is intense, but it is also quiet.
The players’ reliance on sound demands new expectations of the audience. As spectators, we are watchers, but we are also noisemakers—shouters, shriekers, trashtalkers. Goalball spectators can (and do) cheer when a goal is scored, but when gameplay begins, silence is the rule. Before gameplay begins, referees demand, “Quiet Please!”
The Copper Box “was quite specifically designed to achieve a low background noise level so the blind athletes could play” (Soundscape, Issue 3, 38), enabling the venue to be transformed into an atypical space for the sound of sport and spectatorship, a place to challenge our assumptions and expectations.
Goalball spectatorship doesn’t demand pure silence, but it is not the unfettered cacophony that we often expect in sports spectatorship. At the London 2012 Paralympics, Bjork’s “It’s So Quiet” was played during breaks in gameplay to remind spectators of their obligation. The song’s ebb and flow of silence and exuberance captures the sonic rhythm of Goalball, its pulsing cadence of silent attention and energetic eruption.
The nickname, “the box that rocks you to sleep” captures the discomfort spectators may have with Goalball’s soundscape. The silence during play is tense, but the scoring of a goal offers a sudden release. Spectators do not create a persistent cacophony, but rather a pulse, a constant pattern of lull and explosion. The silence of Goalball can feel disconcerting for spectators unfamiliar with the game. The sound of the crowd—the cheers, the clapping, the screams, the groans, the chants–often seem fundamental to the experience of sport.
Silent spectatorship, of course, is an expectation for other sporting events such as golf and tennis. Here, the demand for silence is linked ostensibly to concentration, but also invokes questions of tradition, class, and (in the case of tennis) gender. These sports are individualized demonstrations of skill, and we are admirers, observers.
Team sports invite identification from the crowd. We extend ourselves, making ourselves part of the team, often through sonic exuberance. Speaking about the crowd sounds of the London Olympics, Mike Goldsmith, author of Discord, notes:
Individual athletes commented that the crowd sound was a great source of energy to then, but could also distract. Their comments suggested that some of them used the crowd sound as a resource, that they could tap into or not as the moment demanded (Soundscape, Issue 3, 36).
Sound can feel like participation. Through sound, we make ourselves part of the game, cheering to support our team, hollering to distract a shot. Sound can make sport feel communal, and thus silence can feel like separation, a wall between spectator and team.
But the seeming silence of Goalball spectatorship offers an opportunity to pay attention to the sound of play, sounds that often get subsumed by the roar of the crowd. The meeting of disability and sport offers a “prime space to reread and rewrite culture’s makings” (Tanya Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability Differently, 2007), a space to hear sport differently. The culture of sport is rife with ableist assumptions about how we move, how we watch, how we play. Even when sound is part of sport, it is often an afterthought, an addition—sound might be distracting, it may affect play, but the center sensory preoccupation of sport is frequently visual. We watch, we spectate, we keep our eye on the ball. Sport is sight, but it is also sound. Spectatorship is raucous, but it is also silent.
zing boom shhhh.
Featured Image, “Goal Ball” by Flickr User BLac
Melissa Helquist is an Associate Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College and a PhD Candidate in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. Her dissertation research focuses on digital literacy and blindness and explores the use of sound to read, write, and interpret images. She is a 2012-13 HASTAC scholar and the recipient of a 2012-2013 CCCC Research Initiative Grant. She lives in Salt Lake City, where she hikes, camps, and canoes with her husband and daughter.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig: