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Tea Leaves

Silence of the fans

In top-class sport, it isn't only the players who are important

When Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a tennis Grand Slam event at the 2011 French Open an estimated 116 million compatriots watched the match on television in China. Yet the spectacle would not have been complete without the 15,000 spectators at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris, who rose to their feet as the victorious Li fell flat on her back on the red clay court.

In December 2019, when the South Korean footballer Son Heung-min ran almost the full length of the pitch in London to score for Tottenham Hotspur against Burnley in the English Premier League, Son celebrated his spectacular feat in front of more than 58,000 noisy fans. Those moments are an indelible memory for the millions who watched on TV in Asia.

But such scenes now seem like distant history. The spread of novel coronavirus has brought most top professional sport to a halt, forcing the cancellation or postponement of many events, while others have been played behind closed doors. The recent decision by the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has settled the question of whether the world would watch an athletes-only games on TV screens.

Yet while many sports suffer from the absence of spectators, some seem to manage perfectly well.

When I covered Formula One races in Japan and South Korea the fans could barely be heard because of the noise of the cars, and added little to the drama of the event. Even inside the race track it was easier to follow the race on television than from the grandstand.

It was often the same at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. If I wanted to know the situation in downhill skiing, for example, then standing on the slopes was not the best idea; far better to find a screen that was showing data and standings, as well as close-up action.

Li Na reacts after winning her women's final at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris in June 2011.   © Reuters

In other sports, though, the absence of fans is a serious issue for both the players in the stadium and people watching on TV. In 2016, Richard Scudamore, then chief executive of the EPL, the world's most popular football tournament, told clubs to ensure that visiting spectators were placed as close to the playing surface as possible to improve the experience for viewers.

"It's about atmosphere," said Scudamore, who has attributed the international popularity of the league, in part, to full stadiums and close interaction between players and fans. "One of the unique things about our game, particularly in England, is the amount of away fans and the noise they create ... you want that atmosphere and interaction between the two sets of fans."

Pep Guardiola, the Spanish manager of EPL champions Manchester City, said in early March that games without spectators would be like actors performing in a theater without audiences. "You have to ask whether it is worth playing football without the spectators," Guardiola said. "It doesn't make any sense to play professional football without the people, because they are the ones we do it for, but obviously we are going to follow the instructions we are given.

Games without spectators can be a surreal experience. In November 2015 I attended a World Cup qualifier between Malaysia and United Arab Emirates. The Shah Alam Stadium, just outside Kuala Lumpur, can hold 80,000 people but was empty -- the football authorities were punishing Malaysia for rowdy scenes at an earlier game against Saudi Arabia, when the referee was forced to end the match early because of flares and fireworks thrown onto the pitch.

Malaysia lost 2-1, but it felt like watching a training game. There was none of the usual singing, none of the usual "oohs" and "aahs." Malaysia's coach, Kim Ong Swee, told me after the game that he felt his players would have benefited from the extra push the roar of the fans can give at crucial moments, especially when fatigue starts to set in. Some of the players said they didn't like playing in the empty stadium for a different reason -- they were unable to use the crowd noise as an excuse for not following the coach's instructions.

Not everyone involved in elite soccer feels like this. Eni Aluko, a former England women's international, said she was accustomed to playing in empty or sparsely populated stadiums, but soccer was still the same. "If you play in front of 75,000 people or five, it doesn't make a difference: the game is still the game," Aluko said. "This is where women's football is perhaps purer in its culture than the top of the men's game. ... We are just there for the sport."

Studies have shown, though, that the presence of fans at sporting events can affect outcomes. A 2014 report on Italian soccer found that teams playing at home have a 13% higher chance of winning. The authors said it was difficult to be sure why, but pressure on referees to favor home teams was a major factor. The noise made by supporters also helped by encouraging the home players. In Argentina, a 2018 study found that when games took place in front of fans from only one team, the unsupported team was 20% likelier to lose than if its fans had been present.

It seems that top-class soccer is a different game when spectators are present. It is not clear, though, that the same is true for other sports. Marathon runners, for example, have sometimes thanked roadside crowds for their encouragement. But when Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia won his second successive Tokyo marathon on March 1, he finished 33 seconds faster than he did the previous year -- despite the lack of spectators in the coronavirus-affected empty streets.

Elite sport will eventually return to normal. As the Olympics have shown, though, it may be a long time before spectators can again experience anything like those scenes in Paris and London.

John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer.

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