So I got tipped off about this incredible audio documentary about sound design in sport, on the 99% Invisible radio website. Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2011, it explores modern sports broadcasting and the various techniques used to heighten the atmosphere. In some cases, the sound design employed entirely changes our perception of what the sport is ‘about’. If you have time, it’s worth listening on headphones, or at least in stereo:
The amplified sound of a ball bouncing on grass at Wimbledon over a hushed crowd, with just the faintest trace of reflections from the court, is as much an essential sensory part of the Championships as the white clothing and the beautiful green grass filling the screen. This was brought home to me last year when I watched a game under the closed roof of Centre Court, which was only installed in 2009. Since an outdoor court effectively becomes an indoor court, the reverberations change completely, and it suddenly feels alien and strange. Memory and expectation become part of the audience experience (and indeed, the players experience too).
Other TV sports, such as darts, with the heavily amplified thud of the dart hitting the board over a tense crowd ‘hush’ turn out to be enhanced by sample trickery. The sliding sports at the Winter Olympics are similarly tweaked to improve the audience experience, and curling, with its distinct vocal repertoire and constant team communication is one of the few sports where the entire team are miked up individually. For a different experience, Olympic diving now switches to underwater microphones along with an underwater camera shot as soon as the athlete hits the water; to catch the bubbles and the isolation of the diver returning to the surface.
Of course, many effects which are now essential to the character of sports broadcasting are denied to the audience who have actually turned up to watch. Although there’s stiil some things you can’t get through the TV. I was at Twickenham as a teenager to watch England v France in 1991, and the roar that went up when the England team ran onto the pitch has been imprinted on me for good. “Energy is pure delight.”, as William Blake wrote.
And yes, there is archery. If you want to skip straight there, it’s about 28 minutes in. From the 1990s onwards the Olympic event started using boundary microphones out on the field to catch the sound of the arrow in flight: a subtle, but engaging effect. The announcer, the crowd and the sound of the arrow striking the target become part of the experience. Personally I think they should bring back the heartrate monitor trialled at the World Cup Final in Tokyo in 2012, but apparently it wasn’t popular.
Finally, I will never forget being in the stands at London 2012, where I recorded just a brief bit of audio on my phone; part of the action at the women’s individual final. See what you can hear:
I wish I had had a microphone sensitive enough to pick up the sound in the stands at Lords: the eyelets on the flag rattling gently in the breeze against the metal flagpoles, casting a distinctive, exotic tinkling over the arena, and at the moments of greatest tension. It’s stuck there in my memory forever though. Wish I could share it with you.
Thanks to John Hirst for finding this.