The Sounds of Sport…

From yesterday’s Straits Times, this Rohit Brijnath piece on the sounds of sport.

THE cheapest object in Formula One is now its most useless. It is a Survival Kit I once bought in Singapore for $2, which promised not to protect me from injury but to ensure my sanity was retained. The kit included ear plugs – vital in a sport so full of itself and swollen with sound – but now they are redundant. A sport once famously loud is now whimpering and has about as much machismo as Optimus Prime after being gelded. It’s as unseemly as boxers blowing kisses in the ring.

The sound of the car reflected the testosterone of racing, its noise speaking of power if not pollution. In the scream of acceleration was felt effort, in the auditory invasion was felt raw emotion, in the insistent whine of the car you could literally hear a rival coming. Fast in our memories almost always had to sound furious.

Now we’ve got meek machines and the spectating experience is confused because sound is so integral to a sport’s personality. It is akin to handing cricketers an aluminium bat which might provide a pathetic clunk, not the sweetness of wood meeting leather ball.

Yet this grousing has had an unintended benefit, for it has alerted us again to the soundtracks to which sport unfolds. In boxing, pictures reveal an assault but the thud of glove on flesh brings its own audible violence. In football, there are microphones behind the goal, as if amid the shouting one might hear the whisper of ball being caressed by net. Table tennis, with its squeaking sneakers, is merely a mix of clicks and ticks but certainly no pings or pongs.

To turn down the volume on a TV during sport makes it one-dimensional, akin to erasing the background clatter of cutlery and music rippling in and out as actors converse in a movie. Sound enriches the experience, which is why cricket often has mikes in stumps, six on the fence and on each of its 32 cameras. The Olympics, always the show-offs, use 4,000 mikes for how else would we hear scuttle of feet and hum of cycle.

Dennis Baxter, sound engineer at many Olympics, has spoken of mikes under the flight path of an archer’s arrow, on the gymnasts’ uneven bars and on the hand-rail of a diving board. As he told The Atlantic: “You can hear their hands. You can hear their feet. You can hear them breathing.” You are there. Beside the divers. Hearing them perform. Allowed partial entry into their world.

Sound in sport, through the vuvuzela, is a clue to culture. Sound tells us instinctively which sport we are watching. If it’s calypso music in the stands, it must be cricket. Sound tells us where we are. Oooh go the genteel Wimbledon crowd; boo go the more easily offended French at their Open.

Sound is the athletes’ friend and their reassurance. They stand on pool decks and huddle in competitive corners with headphones on, using music and motivational tapes to shut out a braying world and either calm the nerves or arouse an emotion. Their world is full of fine vibrations and subtle notes which constantly offer hints about form and clues to rhythm.

Saiyidah Aisyah, rowing gold medallist at the recent SEA Games, listens – subconsciously during competition, attentively during training – to her oar cutting water. “It should make a soft splash and when you release an oar (take it out of the water) it must be as silent as possible,” she says. If the sound is not pure, “your technique is not right”.

Tennis players, those mobile detectives, interpret the sound of ball on a rival’s stringed instrument to rapidly decide how much spin has been attached and pace appended to a shot and thus deduce where it might land.

Sound is how cricketers tell timing and also learn about their sporting deaths. When they miss a ball, they are still looking forward, and it is rattle of ball on stumps behind them that signals their departure. “It’s the most horrible sound,” laughs former India captain Rahul Dravid, but 2008 Olympic shooting gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has his own version of hateful noise.

Shooting is so still, so clingfilmed in concentration, that in this cocoon the ear hears more than it requires. “When I have a panic attack,” says Bindra, “or am very nervous, I can hear my heart pounding. It is a filthy sound.”

One day, with a tiny mike placed on his chest in competition, his heart’s sound may be relayed to us along with its rate. One day, there will be no secret sounds in sport and sadly, every audible mystery will be unveiled – from a miked-up cricketer’s tactic to a golfer’s chat with a caddie.

Yet even as the experience of sound evolves, there is one whose effect is unchanged. A sound piercing and unmusical, heartbreaking yet joyous. A sound whose arrival is cheered one day and whose delay is prayed for the next. Nothing in sport is as beautiful and yet as ugly as this sound of the full-time whistle.



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