A few weeks ago, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game at Camden Yards. The game was remarkable not for the result (the Orioles jumped out to an early lead against the Chicago White Sox and ended up winning 8-2) or for any especially memorable plays, but for the lack of fans. With civil unrest roiling the streets of Baltimore, the City and Major League Baseball had postponed games scheduled on Monday April 27 and Tuesday April 28. By Wednesday, things were calm enough to hold a game, but not, apparently, to allow anyone in to see it. Writing on Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern called it a “A sad, lifeless day at the ballpark in Baltimore.”
“Despite the best efforts of the park’s DJ—who played a constant stream of upbeat post-punk hits—the mood of the entire day was like that: Palpably subdued, with a burst of melancholy following every great play made in near-total silence. Maybe it was the thousands and thousands of empty seats, in which players stranded dozens of foul balls. Maybe it was the little wrist-flick several players made when they got a hold of dead balls, primed to normally toss them into the stands for fans to clamor over. Maybe it was the fact that, toward the end of the game, an announcer deadpanned to the press room: ‘Attention media: For record-keeping purposes, today’s official paid attendance is zero.’ Whatever made the day so hushed and surreal, one thing was clear from the start: This is a terrible way to experience baseball.”
Amen to that. Who wants to experience baseball in an empty arena in library-like silence?
This strange footnote to the baseball season got me thinking about how the presence or absence of spectators changes our experience of sporting events. I thought about high school basketball games in tiny gyms, packed to fire department capacity with sweaty teenagers. I thought about indoor track at the Armory and outdoor track at Hayward field. The venues and the crowds are certainly part of what makes these events so exciting.
And then I wondered about the one corner of the Track and Field universe that always seems to be contested when no one is around to see it. Maybe not in the Olympics, where tickets are in demand for every day of the program, but at almost every other level, the multi events take place in Baltimore-like isolation.
I’m talking about the decathlon, the heptathlon, and (to a lesser extent) the indoor pentathlon. The decathlon and heptathlon take place over two days, and in college meets, they are usually scheduled before everything else, which is essentially the same as saying that they are scheduled when no one is around. I’m sure there are a few track fans out there who make it a point to watch the multi-events, but most people don’t. I’m a fan of the sport, and the only time I’ve EVER watched any decathlon action live was at the 2000 Olympic Trials, and that was more or less accidental because the schedule had it taking place at the same time as some other events that I wanted to see.
If you believe that multi-event athletes are the most athletic of them all, it’s strange that almost no one ever watches them, except on TV when NBC deigns to show 20-second highlights from events that took place earlier in the day or week. One problem is that you have to invest a lot of time in the multi-events to really understand what’s going on. You need to know which competitors are good at which events, and you need a scoring table handy to understand why that 65m javelin throw changes everything. Another problem is that the competitors themselves can’t get too excited for every jump, throw, and race. Multi-event athletes always seem very laid back, their calm demeanor masking an intense focus on the next insanely difficult thing they have to do.
In addition to the huge investment of time, a spectator must be content to watch these marvelous athletes do everything a little worse than the best in the world. With a few notable exceptions, these athletes don’t run quite as fast as the fastest runners, and certainly don’t throw as far. Occasionally, you’ll see someone like Jackie-Joyner Kersee who was a champion heptathlete and long-jumper, or Ashton Eaton who is pretty darn close to being a world-class 110m hurdler. But mostly, the folks are impressive because they can do everything pretty well, rather than one thing superbly.
But let’s say you do invest that time, and you attend the two long days of competition, following the athletes as they move from station to station like circus performers barnstorming a series of small towns. Let’s say you follow the scores and you realize that everything is coming down to the final test of endurance — the 1500m for men, or the 800m for women. And you know everyone’s personal best, and you realize — before anyone else! — that so-and-so needs to finish two or more seconds faster than the leader to overtake him or her, but that he’s never done that before. The race starts and you’re on the edge of your seat watching the challenger throw caution to the wind and take it out at a suicidal pace. It’s a great race, an epic race, and when the challenger’s risk pays off, and he crosses the line and collapses in victory, you’re going crazy, and shouting, and cheering…
…and other than the tired competitors standing with their hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath, there’s absolutely no one around to hear you.