Saturday, June 4, 2011
What makes sport a spectacle?
(This essay originally appeared in Open Magazine.)
My mother, once a loose-limbed college athlete and a lifelong John McEnroe fan, got me hooked to tennis in the mid-1980s. I can still remember at a very visceral level feeling disoriented when the chair umpire called an increment of 15 points, as we watched my first Wimbledon match on our old Dyanora black-and-white television set, which we had to whack hard on the side every few minutes to be rid of white noise. Why 15, why not 1, I asked my mother, who shrugged distractedly, not even noticing that I was displaying phenomenal arithmetic skills. But as I got the hang of it and stopped questioning every single thing, I found myself, like my mother, immersed in the pleasure of watching Jimmy Connors take those peculiar short steps as he raced all over the court only to have McEnroe wind up at the net for the kill: it seemed nothing could zip past our man’s motor mouth.
Back then, I was still developing the vocabulary to explain why I liked what I liked. But instinctively it seemed to me that the joy lay in the suspense of it: would the ball land clean inside the tramline, would the lob sneak over Connors’s head, would the savage backhand beat McEnroe’s languid reach?
Cultural taste is relative. Unlike the more primal instincts, my predilection for suspense is an individual response – not something that must be shared by everyone. Some who regard Test cricket as outdated are partial to the brevity of the Twenty20 format; others who mock the vulgarity of the Indian Premier League treasure the sanctity of the long form. A music critic might be drawn to the rhythm of snooker balls crashing chaotically into each other. It’s impossible to predict what might appeal to the human senses.
Even so, there must be larger socio-cultural factors that go into making one sport watchable in the opinion of a fastidious demographic and another quite impossible to promote. What is it that draws us fundamentally toward spectacle? Why might cricket be more gripping than croquet? How big a role do the media play in shaping our interests? Is there an element of self-selection involved? To answer all of these, we ought to begin by interrogating the nature of viewership pleasure itself.
It may be fair to say that most people don’t connect with something visually until they have experienced it firsthand. Playing something makes it watchable. (After having spent years under the watchful gaze of his taskmaster father, hitting some two thousand balls a day in practice, Andre Agassi claimed he didn’t even like tennis; but going by everything he confesses in his autobiography, Open, you would suspect he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.) In his seminal New York Times essay on Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace – once a regionally ranked junior tennis player – wrote, “Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments… The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do.” This is a variation on the old argument that to wholly enjoy a sport and gain a sophisticated appreciation for it, you need to play it at least at the club level. But does that always mean there is no pleasure to be gained otherwise? Such an ideology seems to me needlessly repressive and exclusionary.
Wallace’s deconstruction of Federer’s game is immaculate, knowledgeable and thorough. His views strike one as expert, to say nothing of his style. Along the way, he emphasizes television’s distancing effects on the viewer, and stops to reflect upon all that it captures through close-ups and the details that it misses. Yet I envy how he offhandedly detaches himself from an audience that presumably pays to watch tennis on television.
I play squash myself, at a level of proficiency sufficient to grasp nuances when I watch others compete. But squash’s misplaced reputation in the West (and to an extent, in India) as a rich man's hobby frustrates me; it can ill-afford to alienate a potential audience through snobbery. Is the pleasure gained from watching sport really more acute if one has played as a gifted amateur or professional or is Wallace’s brush-off an instance of gratifying the ego, knowing that one sees what the big deal is? Could this be a case of both?
Although research confirms that hands-on involvement enriches and crystallizes one’s perspective by activating our sense of empathy, it is probably not, strictly speaking, necessary to have played to enjoy the sport – and maybe not even to be able to hold forth with any degree of authority. Understanding a sport is not the same as speaking lucidly about it. Irrespective of their socio-economic origin, few soccer or cricket players can harness everything they know and feel in the commentary box; conversely, the pleasure a dilettante derives is not necessarily passive and ignorant. A good commentator could well make the difference between making something watchable and rendering it torturous. To make the Sherlock Holmes argument: in the extreme case, if a dilettante’s powers of armchair analysis have evolved sufficiently, he might outdo the supposed expert and provide a diversion to the audience.
While a seemingly elitist sport like tennis continues to resonate more with the club membership-owning, racquet-swinging bourgeoisie than with the working classes, television and the Internet have definitely made significant contributions towards bridging such divides. High quality commentaries and analyses are increasingly accessible and have deepened our understanding of sport, whilst simultaneously diversifying viewership.
As life expectancy goes up, age is no longer necessarily a barrier to watching or participating in athletic activities. Trying to establish any correlation between gender and liking for sports is similarly fraught with risk; I say this, mindful of the detail that it was my mother – not my father – who introduced me to sport. While the term couch potato signifies masculine identity, it wouldn’t take much to convince anyone that more women exercise at the gym than men. Who is to say an afternoon spent competing against a partner in the swimming pool (or, for that matter, in a half-marathon) does not count as enjoying a recreational sport – a sport that you might even want to tune in to on TV as your interest levels build?
Let’s just say instead, there may be no convincing those men and women who instantly switch off when confronted by a sporting moment. I have acquaintances of that variety who split hairs about Proust’s insights on memory but make a face when conversation turns towards sport. It is safe to presume they wouldn’t want to read a word of this essay.
Most casual viewers who keep an open mind automatically connect the word ‘watchable’ with ‘beautiful’. That last word connotes different things to different people. Many enjoy the presence of a pretty face or buff body. Someone I know has researched every documented case of streaking on YouTube, which is odd but fair enough: if that’s what it takes to draw eyeballs then so be it. The slam-dash of Sehwag, showcasing physicality without resorting to ungainliness, is in its own way gorgeous to watch. Others subconsciously or consciously privilege economy of movement and effort over a huff and a puff. Spoiled by the likes of Federer and V.V.S Laxman, these watchers have come to expect professionals to display a degree of grace and wince when someone wins ugly.
There is much to be said for the bewitching power of elegance when discussing audience pleasure. Watching Warne turn the ball from a leg-stump line to hit off is to experience joy that is soul-satisfyingly intense. The extent of turn and bounce is unpredictable, its effect mystical; the cause of the sensations it provokes obvious even to the initiate.
The medium of reference matters too. Watching something on television or the Internet is very different from following it on the radio or checking scores online (which are both one step removed, an abstract kind of watching through the mind’s eye). And none of these is anything like witnessing an event live.
Whenever I watch cricket on television I morph into an adrenaline junkie addicted to the thrill that spikes in the fraction of a second between frames as the camera switches focus. My breath catches every time Laxman – my favourite batsman – plays the ball uppishly in the direction of cover. I know it usually means a four or the loss of his wicket, and I cannot bear to find out what the television is about to reveal.
I hate that television is inherently a constraining medium: you can only see all that is within the confines of what the cameramen choose to capture. It was more liberating to imagine Mohammed Azharuddin bat while listening to commentary on All India Radio as he scored that magnificent 163 not out against the South Africans in Kanpur in 1996, although again, the information was rationed out by the radio man.
I have had the privilege of watching Roger Federer in his pomp dismantle opponents with a flick of his wrist as he drifted and hung over the grass, forty feet away. The Center Court press box at Wimbledon gives you a slightly side-on view of the action; I am convinced of the merits of its positioning. Being there also allows you to observe the little things, to wander into nooks that the television camera avoids, and to meet the characters, as I did (among many others) an eccentric old gentleman, a senior member of the All-England club, who had ushered members of the press into their allotted space for more than four decades. Restricted as we are by the precincts of the mainstream media, these simple freedoms can be a luxury.
I once asked the world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, during an interview if he thought thirty-two pieces on a square board had the makings of a televised sport. Anand is one of the most fascinating and articulate sportsmen I have met (and who, by the way, makes a great case for regarding chess as a sport). He is telegenic in a pleasantly chubby sense, and someday would do brilliantly as a talking head. Always in control of his public image, he is slightly reserved but nonetheless charming, and a far cry from the dissident recluse cliché that defined Bobby Fisher in his later years. His ideas are refined and in conversation tend to emerge fully-formed.
“The Internet has worked miracles for those trying to popularise the game, but in India better use must be made of the television medium,” he said, and proceeded to compare chess to Formula 1. “At one level it's really very similar to the way Formula One functions: you have cars whizzing past. How boring is that? Then some bright chap decided to install cameras inside the car, give the viewer multiple perspectives. Suddenly F1 gets a lot more interesting, doesn't it?
“You have got to be creative. Maybe get better commentators to tell the viewer exactly why a particular move was brilliant, I'm not sure. But it's certainly possible to do something about it. F1 could act as a model for chess.”
I can see why he cites the case of F1: as a spectacle, chess and F1 are both sports geared exclusively towards remote audiences. F1, incidentally, is a fascinating thing. Despite the phenomenon of crowds in the stands (which can only be understood as a consequence of hype), it is a sport made for television. The press box consists of a large room lined with hundreds of cubicles with a television monitor hanging over each of them. No journalist could write his story watching F1 from the stands.
But the more I think about it, I am not sure I entirely agree with the association Anand draws. Maybe F1 offers viewers a vicarious and cathartic release from following traffic laws, but few people have ever stepped into a racing car whereas many likely played chess at least once, however badly. And unlike F1 racing whose post-camera enhancement thrills are in theory comprehensible to almost everyone – especially those who play simulation games – chess discriminates on the basis of intelligence.
There is a more meaningful comparison to be drawn between and among sports that exploit the same skill sets. Racquet sports like squash and badminton could learn much in terms of expanding their audience from tennis. Comparing chess to F1 on the other hand might be a bit of a stretch.
To a prodigious mind like Anand’s it might seem plausible that expounding on the intelligence of a move would by itself draw an audience; but his argument ignores the fact that most people are accustomed to sport as a leisurely pursuit, not something that demands even more intellectual investment than their job does.
Chess is the definitive elitist sport. I played chess in school and while I know how involving it can be, it seems to me that in the absence of physicality and other forms of demonstrable action, this is the rare kind of game one cannot enjoy at all unless one fully comprehends the motives behind a move.
Now it’s all very well to appreciate a sport for its qualities but fans are not unbiased creatures. They need something to root for, colorful characters to valorize and pillory; they want war without the consequences of bullets.
There is a biological correlation between a viewer’s investment in the spectacle and the quality of performance of a favorite player or team. A German study conducted during the 1994 Soccer World Cup, indicated an increase of 28% in testosterone levels in Brazilian fans whose side was winning and a 27% decrease in Italian fans whose side was losing. According to the study, levels of testosterone in fans rise in an anticipatory manner prior to competition. ‘Winning’ can further elevate levels, whilst ‘losing’ can result in a decrease.
Rabid fans, haters and indifferent grumblers celebrate together when the spectacle in question exceeds the sport, as was the case the night India won the 2011 Cricket World Cup. And yet, whether or not you are a fan, the novelty of seeing a racer like Schumacher win race after race fades quickly. Once, people complained when Federer was pulverizing every player in sight. Now, after having upset Novak Djokovic in yesterday's rousing French Open semifinal, he is back in their good graces. The status quo must be quickly overhauled, and the underdog must win to keep things interesting. A decider between Federer and Nadal is preferable to practically anything else.
Feeling sorrow for someone’s loss is just as life-affirming as celebrating a win. In the end it’s the humanizing aspect that makes or breaks a sport; the drama that makes it watchable or unbearable.