Far From the Gladdening Crowd: Live Sport Is Our Collective Therapy
“The future belongs to crowds,” Don DeLillo wrote in Mao II, a quote that makes DeLillo sound po-faced and serious, when he also wrote things like “Bloomberg weighed three hundred pounds … I revered his weight. It was an affirmation of humanity’s reckless potential”, and “you people are a bunch of feeble-minded shitfarmers”.
But DeLillo was right about the future and about crowds. Even if currently it seems the present belongs instead to something else entirely, to the opposite of crowds.
Yes, it’s another article about sport not happening. There won’t be many more of these. But it has only been a week and there is still time to grieve the loss of so many wonderful everyday things; and to think about how to replace those warm feelings in the coming isolation.
What do you miss most about sport right now? Is it the endless narrative twists? Is it the fact the story has simply stopped mid-frame? In another timeline Liverpool are trying to win the league title this weekend. José Mourinho is speaking in an amused, lucid, strangely crowing tone about exactly how every single person in professional football has let him, José Mourinho, down.
Meanwhile England are batting incredibly slowly in Sri Lanka, reinventing Test cricket as a source of invigorating hair-shirt agony. People everywhere are beginning the slow build-up to pretending to know things about Olympic sports. And endless competing strains of noise and color are drowning out the rest of what we like to call the real world.
Or not as it turns out. Snap back to the present day and instead you’re grappling with a man in a baseball cap over the last pack of Morrisons own-brand charcoal oatcakes. Outside Pestilence, Famine and Binbag Shortage are clip-clopping through the side-streets, flickering at the edge of everyone’s vision. And before long we will begin to hunker down, atomized, reduced to our base units, and entering an unexpected ordeal of solitude. This is what I’m going to miss above all: the crowds! Sport has a tendency to overstate wildly its own importance. But it is startling how directly this new, much worse version of the immediate future speaks to sport’s most notable characteristic, the power to make people gather together.
This is not a straightforward love affair. Nobody loves being in a crowd the way they love plenty of other, more personal things we’re going to miss in the coming isolation. But to congregate is clearly a vital part of our nature. And outside of pilgrimages, demos, concerts and the hive-mind of aimless weekend consumerism, sport has become the most obvious expression for this urge.
The current weekend would have seen 850,000 people go to watch football in England and Scotland, astonishing numbers, particularly when suddenly this has become an absence. But then this has always been the strange power of spectator sport, from its birth in England in the rear field of the Trent Bridge Inn, where the landlord noticed large crowds flocking to watch the local cricketers and decided to put a rope around it and make this a thing.
Plus on micro-level sport itself is a statement of our desire to be social, a way of finding form and beauty in the crowd: from stylized individual pursuits such as tennis where two people stand apart, surrounded by others, and only embrace at the conclusion, to those which are essentially choreographed collisions.
Rugby gives us the scrum, so dear and so tenderly protected, but also the backs, whose entire existence is defined by a dance of angles and intersection. Football has always been about space and lack of space, about compressing and escaping the crowd, about getting tight, dropping off and, of course, firing home through a forest of legs. The best forms of cycling exist almost entirely around the power and the limits of the peloton, sport as crowd momentum, crowd flow. As for things like the marathon, well, this is sport reduced to first principles, zombie apocalypse in shorts: basically a few thin fast people running away from a crowd.
Mainly, though, the point is the people who gather to watch. This was supposed to be a column about some favorite sporting crowds and how much fun it will be for us to go back and appreciate them a little more.
But looking up I see words, phrases, digressions crowding down on top of this point like a spume of humanity flowing back from the lunchtime stairwells in the Compton stand on a sunny Saturday Test match afternoon.
Still, here is a random list of some of the ones I will miss in a non-partisan way, from the street party chanson of Parc des Princes, to the weird kinetic surges around Anfield, to the strolling pleasures of the grassy banks at Kingsmead and Buffalo Park, the choir in Cape Town, the crackle of hostility around an angry Stamford Bridge, the barrelling noise of places as disparate as the Bet365, Old Trafford (up-for-it version), the Maracanã and the full beer-sodden haze of Alexandra Palace (ie any time after 10.30 am weekdays).
The crowd can be inconvenient. It can behave badly, suck the joy out of your day, make you queue and shiver with cold, chip grease smeared down the front of your goose-down North Face gilet, stray elbows jammed in your ears, trains canceled, bothered by boozed-up lad-swarms, trapped next to men in ancient waxy coats who smell strongly of Camembert.
It’s not about performative noise either. There is something distinct even in the most sullen and ruminative of crowds, or in one of those seething, griping, Wembley England crowds, where you hear individual sighs and shrieks, the sound of someone unwrapping another wine gum, thinking about the tube, worrying about work. There is an extraordinary effect in any crowd, one you miss most when it’s not there, a kind of self-awareness. Crowds can make noises that don’t seem to come from any one person. They can generate heat and shared feelings, emotions that spread by benevolent contagion. Sporting crowds are a statement of species power.
And yet the crowd has been canceled. This is of course entirely correct. The only option now is to shut the door and breathe your own air. But social distancing is a misleading phrase. The best part of the crowd, its collectivism, will help get us through not just Covid-19, but the separate challenges of isolation and loneliness. Now more than ever, we will need to feel that presence around us.