sense, experience, fascinance

Actually being a spectator at the events was probably the least of my experiences this summer in Beijing. Perhaps this is because I am already familiar with the codes and protocols of attending major sporting events at large-scale venues? Indeed, what interested me most about spectatorship at the Olympics were the additional layers of security required to enter any privileged space of live competition. Beyond that, the sports themselves were relatively modest affairs.

Olympic Spectatorship

This stood in contrast to the rest of my movements around the city, which always held a sense of fascinance for me as Beijing's codes and protocols, not to mention language, were always just-beyond-the-grasp-of-the-familiar-and-apprehendable. In this hyperattenuated sense of awareness, my nervous system was outered into a rhythmical co-resonance with the urban dynamism surrounding me at every turn. Once inside the stadium, however, with its partitions and conduits and familiar sign systems, that sense of fascinance (almost a seventh sense, really) was negated. This was not helped in the slightest by the sterility, understood multi-sensually, of the event space proper.

One makes a mistake by thinking that spectatorship is about watching an event solely with one's eyes. It is rather a fully embodied experience complementing vision with the roar of the fans, the smell of sweat and, most importantly, the tangible feel of being part of a crowd. This latter isn't necessarily suggesting the sense of touch; in fact, touch — think the discomfort of stadium seat on posterior or the accidental brushing of a stranger's arm on the armrest — seems something to be tolerated or avoided in this quasi-public space. But the affect of being in the crowd hangs thick in the air in a very haptic sense at a large scale sporting event (or rock concert, protest rally, etc.).

At least it should. And this is where the question of partisanship enters the affective experience: it is the desire-in-common of the crowd that gives the air its think, heavy feel. Spectators or media observers of sport often wonder about the effects of an athlete or team playing away from home in a hostile environment, but the question is flawed from the outset. Positive and negative poles of partisanship do not stand opposed to one another, but rather like a moebius strip they stand counter to the neutral. The intensity of the lived experience derived from partisanship during performance is equally beneficial to the visiting athlete or team in a hostile environment, even if a few invectives are being hurled in their direction through the process.

The real danger to the athlete is if the space is devoid of the thick affect of partisanship, in which case I would argue that play suffers in a non-trivial sense. This is even more true for the spectator: unable to participate in a meaningful way except through acts of partisanship, one is otherwise reduced to remote, sterile, even clinical appreciation of the performance at hand. This is how I would describe my experiences in Beijing at the Olympic venues I attended. Though I had decent seats, was with excellent company, and had the world's best athletes in front of me at the greatest sports pageant and spectacle of them all, there was something missing: the thick affect of the partisan.

Olympic Family

This was certainly not helped in the slightest by the vast swaths of seating left vacant — in prime locations, no less — by members of the "Olympic Family." Indeed, only family can be so present in its absence.

Experience is compounded of feeling and thought. Human feeling is not a succession of discrete sensations; rather memory and anticipation are able to wield sensory impacts into a shifting stream of experience so that we may speak of a life of feeling as we do a life of thought. It is a common tendency to regard feeling and thought as opposed, the one registering subjective states, the other reporting on objective reality. In fact, they lie near the two ends of an experiential continuum, and both are ways of knowing (Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, p. 10).

This perhaps best captures my experience of sport at the Olympic venues in Beijing: moving from the feeling end of the continuum in the city, with its heavy emphasis on anticipation, to the thinking end of the continuum in the clinical space of the stadium, what feeling remained heavily influenced by memory. And both were ways of knowing.


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  1. sportsBabel » Pixel to Pellicule to Projection says:

    [...] fact, there need not even exist a roaring crowd for there to be a comparable level of intensity perceived by those in attendance. A stillness — an anticipation of what is to come — may resonate with the flesh in a [...]