The intense squeaking of rubber shoes moving across a polished maple floor, the hard blow of a racquet hitting a fibrous felt ball, and the crisp sound of iron skates carving through the ice – distinctive sounds and noises are a major part of how humans experience certain sports and in all sporting contexts sounds have their own meanings, signs and symbols. In fencing, for example, though it is considered a noble sport, athletes often intensely scream and yell during bouts in order to intimidate their opponents, but also to convince the referee to award them a point. Spectators in stadiums often chant wildly and roar loudly during games to support their teams, In fact, fans of the Turkish football club Galatasaray have let out a 132-decibel roar during a game, louder than even a fighter jet during takeoff. However, the culture of sport is still predominately defined through visual images in the media and public spaces. Looking at the peripheral way that sound is tied to sports, can point us toward some crucial aspects about how humans experience the world through senses other than the visual.
During the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, the constant buzzing of vuvuzela horns became a significant part of how spectators experienced the event. Critics complained that the vuvuzela horn disrupted the familiar broadcasting experience of the games, arguing that due to its high decibel the noise was dangerous for humans; others described it as a fun and integrated part of South African football culture. Today, vuvuzela horns have been banned in most stadiums in the US and during the 2012 summer Olympics in London and the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil, vuvuzelas were not allowed on the sidelines. In that sense, the seemingly innocent sound of vuvuzela horns turned into a dispute about how humans order sound and noise different depending on the cultural context.
The lack of familiar sounds might also be what caused the controversy around the vuvuzela horns at the World Cup. Most of the complaints about the South African horns came from European TV viewers and football players from European countries. Portuguese cable providers even offered a muting service for the vuvuzela horns during Portuguese games. European football fans are familiar with all sorts of different sounds and noises during a football game, from chants to drums to flutes. However, the sound of the vuvuzela horns might have highlighted a lack of such familiarity and therefore came to be heard and experienced as unwanted noise for the European spectators.
We can relate such unwanted experience of noise to other unwanted phenomena that humans experience, such as dirt. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is something that comes to be categorized as unwanted and out of place for specific communities in order to maintain their social orders. If a smelly shoe is on the dinner table, for example, it most likely will be considered dirty and therefore be removed in order to maintain the social order around eating. In that sense, Douglas argues that imaginations about dirt can be used as an important lens for understanding how people organize their moral and social lives. Just as a smelly shoe on the dinner table is considered matter out of place, the noise of vuvuzela was characterized as dirty and unwanted for the European spectators, since it disrupted their social order and expectations of attending a football game.
Anthropologists use the term soundscapes to describe the way that every community has its own specific sound markers that come to define social life and spaces. In his research on American malls, the social theorist Jonathan Sterne found that certain programmed background music that plays from speakers in every store of the mall, are distinctly connected to the experience of being a consumer at a mall. For Sterne, this programmed background music is intended to attract a certain group of affluent middle-class consumers that desires familiarity. Like the familiar sound of programmed music at a mall, the distinctive upbeat music and clapping during games in a Danish handball arena, can also be considered to represent a certain marker of familiarity and regularity. Even though the playlist can differ slightly between handball arenas, the playlists still contain highly recognizable songs that regular spectators recognize and can sing and dance along to. The music played at handball games aims to build a sense of familiarity among Danish middle-class spectators and establishes a sense of social order, complete with accompanying sounds and movements.
To better understand the fundamental role that sound plays in the way humans experience sports, one just has to consider how deaf people are excluded from participating in major league sports due to a prejudiced imagination of them having limited capabilities to recognize auditory communication from judges, teammates and coaches. Because of such prejudices, athletes with hearing disabilities participate in their own sports leagues and even have their own federations. Even though sports are in many aspects considered to be a great equalizer between groups of people, societal ideas about sound and disability actually seem to marginalize certain groups, such as the deaf, from being part of major league sports.
The sensorial experience of sound seems to define the ways humans experience sports in much more underlying ways than we tend to think. Watching sports is therefore just as much about hearing them.
Sterne, Jonathan (1997). “Sounds like the Mall of America: Programmed music and the architectonics of commercial space.” Ethnomusicology 41.1: 22-50.
Douglas, Mary (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.
Photo by Andrew Moore used under CCL