Crowd-Free Sport: The Show Must Go On

    A football stadium with empty seats

    Written by Lizzie Simmonds

    Your heart is pumping, the blood coursing through your veins. Tingling hands fidget nervously by your side. Fuelled by adrenaline, your feet pace. It’s impossible to be still; the anticipation is almost unbearable. Through closed doors, you hear the crowd. It starts as a low rumble of applause, but quickly builds to a crescendo of sound that you feel reverberate through your body. It’s almost time. 

    The entrance screen slides open and stepping out into the stadium feels like a sensory overload. Dazzling spotlights, flashing cameras and that cacophony of noise. The atmosphere is electric, crackling with an energy that is felt in every fibre of your being. You look up, the crowd is going wild, lifting you with their cheers, propelling you forwards towards the starting blocks. You’ve been waiting for this moment your whole life. This is your time. 

    Why are crowds important?

    For any athlete, competing in any sport, the atmosphere created by spectators is an integral part of the experience. Of course, having family and friends present and supporting is important, but even crowds full of strangers do the trick, bringing energy and character to the stadium.

    Elite athletes simulate competition all the time in training—they run and swim race distances, they throw and jump to their limits, they cycle as fast as they can around a track. But world records are not broken in training. No matter how hard athletes are pushing throughout the year, their final gear is only seen on the big occasions. Part of this we can attribute to carefully timed rest and recovery, but another significant factor is the impact that the crowd and sense of occasion has on performance.

    I was fortunate to compete at two Olympic Games, including the London Olympics in 2012. I have plenty of special memories from my career, but it’s hard to top the experience of walking out to compete in front of a home crowd at an Olympic Games. It’s no surprise to me that Team GB were so successful at those Games—the support from the nation was out of this world.

    What does the current landscape look like?

    With social distancing restrictions still in place across the world, sporting events have largely been happening behind closed doors, either with very limited spectator presence, or no crowds at all.

    Here in the UK there has been a rallying cry from many sports to continue as planned with the reintroduction of crowds, but this pilot has been put on hold due to rising cases of COVID-19. With restrictions across the nation being tightened once again, it’s hard to see how stadiums will be back to anywhere near capacity this side of the New Year. 

    Of course, not all sports have been affected equally. Those in close-quarter indoor stadiums have been hardest hit, but for some outdoor events, the show has been able to go on relatively uninterrupted. Watching the recent Tour de France and Giro Rosa cycling races, you’d be forgiven for forgetting there’s a pandemic at all, with fans lining the streets and screaming for their favourites, albeit from behind a face mask. 

    For the majority though, empty seats in vast grandstands may be the norm for some time.

    What does this mean for elite athletes? 

    Competing at major events without spectators introduces a huge mental challenge for athletes across the world. Spectators live and breathe the event as it unfolds before them, and the athletes ride off this energy. The noise, the suspense, the screams of celebration and sighs of commiseration, can’t be replicated in an athlete’s head. A crowd is organic; it becomes alive, and it can ultimately change what is possible on the field of play.

    Whilst many sports are in their ‘off-season’, it is likely that restrictions will remain in place into next year, so athletes are going to have to prepare to compete without the atmosphere they’re familiar with. The challenge is how to produce something special when the stadium is flatter and quieter than usual.

    In a sense, athletes will need to become their own support team, walking onto the field of play knowing they have everything they need in their personal armoury to perform at their best. There can no longer be any reliance on a crowd to lift you if there’s no guarantee that the crowd will be there!

    Elite sport is all about finding advantages over your competitors, and this situation is no different. Teams will be using behavioural psychologists to understand how they can exploit the new conditions, and athletes will be working out how they can respond better than the rest of the field. 

    Some may choose music to get themselves mentally pumped up; others will train themselves to respond to another stimulus in the same way they usually would for the crowd. Elite sport is full of adversity—it will be interesting to see who rises to the challenge and thrives in this new landscape.

    And the fans?

    The social distancing restrictions are also having an understandable impact on fans, who remain frustrated that they can’t go and see their favourite sports in action. Watching virtually is, of course, an option, but that doesn’t offer the same experience as a live event. 

    It’s not just athletes who feed off the energy in a stadium or at an event—the crowd is living every minute of the event, holding their breath at fine margins and erupting in unison when the underdog pulls off something extraordinary. People leave the stadium feeling energised and elated, inspired to reach their own goals in life. They find camaraderie with strangers, bonding over the national hero or the new team on the block. 

    New generations of sporting superstars often begin their own journey in the stands, wide-eyed as the action unfolds before them, silently committing to one day perform at that highest level themselves.

    Even when spectators do start to trickle back in, the measures to keep everyone safe make everything a bit clinical. Cheers from behind face masks, every other seat empty, and certainly no hugging or high fiving strangers when the team wins.

    A new age for the spectator experience?

    Not all is lost. Technological advancements in sports coverage continue to improve the at-home watching experience of live events. Close up replays of critical action, from different camera angles, bring excitement and drama to our screens. 

    Athletes utilise a range of wearable technology, including GPS trackers, heart rate monitors and impact sensors; data that can be shared with the audience, providing fascinating real-time statistics on favourite players. 

    VR capabilities offer pitch-side insights and hawk-eye perspective, and it doesn’t seem too farfetched to imagine that fans will soon be able to feel like they’re on the field of play themselves. 

    Whilst a stadium may host thousands, millions more tune in on screens, connecting via social media to share their support and commiserations. Fan interaction on the ground may be limited, but engagement in the cloud has never been greater. 

    Being limited to a virtual spectator experience poses an additional benefit: whilst watching sport in person can be time consuming and expensive, flicking between channels or steaming services is easy and free. I’m sure COVID-19 won’t spell the end for die-hard single sports fans, but it does offer the opportunity to tune in to events and sports that we wouldn’t usually have on our radar. 

    What about recreational sport?

    It’s not just elite sport that benefits from a crowd. Park runners, recreational sports players, and even gym goers enjoy the support and encouragement of spectators, who push them through the hard yards with claps, cheers and high fives. 

    Many people, at various stages in their fitness journeys, had events booked this year, giving them something tangible to train towards. Most of those events have also been wiped from the calendar, with little reassurance as to when they’ll return.

    The challenge now will be finding new goals to motivate and inspire you within the restrictive landscape—virtual 10k runs, step challenges with colleagues, or exercise competitions within the family home. It will still be important to celebrate the progress and the wins along the way, especially as we head towards the winter months and it becomes all too tempting to snuggle up on the sofa!

    Spectators and fans are what make competitions special at all levels—the ecosystem of sport just doesn’t work without them. But, like many things in this challenging year, people are demonstrating their ability to adapt and innovate and will continue to find ways to come together (physically or virtually) to celebrate the athletic feats they love so much. Sport isn’t going anywhere and, luckily for those who play it, neither are the fans who support it.

    If any of the restrictions surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic are making you anxious, read our article on 5 science-backed hacks for relieving anxiety to help calm your mind.

    Lizzie Simmonds

    Lizzie enjoyed a long career as an international swimmer, securing medals at Commonwealth, European and World Championship level. She also competed for Team GB at two Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively. She retired from professional competition in 2018, but still holds influence within the sporting sphere, supporting fellow elite athletes throughout and beyond their sporting careers. 

    Lizzie is also passionate about health and wellbeing and is one of Vitality’s Performance Champions, delivering motivational talks and workshops, and inspiring people across the nation to get active and healthy.


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