Fans as MVP, or the need for sensuous audiences in sport

Meredith Bagley

Associate professor of Communication Studies at The University of Alabama. She researches rhetoric in sport, particularly athlete voice. Her work has appeared in several collections, most recently Sportswomen’s Apparel Around the United States: Uniformly Discussed (Routledge, 2021). She lives in Birmingham, AL with her wife and kids. 

Good news for couch potatoes: turns out fans are a key part of transcendent sport performance! Or so it seems from a variety of cases in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in which the lack of large in-person audiences seemed to significantly impact elite athlete performance. Who knew they needed us so much?

OK, so it’s not that these supremely talented athletes “need us” to do their spins, flips, and leaps, but the lack of in-person fans at the Tokyo Games reveals the complex and under-studied means by which bodies connect through non-symbolic means. I argue that many of the ways Olympic athletes experienced the lack of adoring fans echoes arguments made by scholars of rhetoric about the ways speakers and audiences share a complex, affective, embodied connection that is summed up by the quixotic notion of the sensorium. If it’s true, as I’d argue, that athletes ‘speak’ to us through their bodies, then fans become ‘audiences’ and not just passive flag waving ones; as the concept of the sensorium suggests, athletes/speakers and fans/audiences are linked in an iterative, sensuous network of feedback that is vital to robust exchanges – of communication or sport. 

Speech and rhetoric scholars are, of course, primarily interested in words. But the focus of our field is not, and was not historically, solely occupied with this one mode of communication. As Dr. Debra Hawhee documents in her centennial review of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, the idea of a multi-sensory model of communication dates to our field’s founding. She cites Judson & Rodden’s (1915) use of electricity metaphors to explain the sensorium and the ways sensory process are vital to “overcome resistance to make the desired connection” with audiences. The term itself traces to Thomas More, who defined it as “an area of sense awareness that precedes knowledge” and thus calls into question whether speech creates knowledge or achieves something closer to symbolization, making manifest what was already brewing amid our sensory processes. More recently Dumit (2006) defines the sensorium as “the sensing package that constitutes our participation in the world.” Deprived of sensory input, we struggle to enact our humanity Dumit suggests; deprived of sensory input, do athletes struggle to achieve?

Live sport performance, while not primarily reliant on spoken language, still qualifies as communication in many ways. Certainly the burst of athlete activism that we are currently living in demonstrate how t-shirts, tape wrap, stances and gestures in sport spaces can communicate strong, complex, nuanced, and meaningful messages. Olympic sport performances have been studied for decades for, most often, their expressions of nationalist identity. More recently, scholars have grappled with the sporting body itself, how athletes express rhetorically via their competitive performance, the ways we can see sport as an “agonistic” realm of communication. 

What the Tokyo Games revealed, I argue, is the deep connection between athletes and live fan audiences. If, as Hawhee demonstrates, Darwin used the sensorium to describe the ways our senses are a “gateway to bodily action” then how deprived were our Olympians of that key entry point? When Simone Biles includes the lack of fans in her explanation for her remarkable act to step away from the team competition, when US women’s soccer players mention lack of live crowds for the teams unprecedented struggles in pool play, when even the street-style skateboarders were playing music in their earbuds to make up for the quiet stadiums – Skateboarders were stressed out? What is happening?! – perhaps the lack of human sensory connection is worth scrutiny. It is customary to praise athlete for being ‘in the zone’, taken to mean a hyper-focused state that tunes out all ‘distractions.’ But Tokyo athletes admitted to hearing crowds as they took breaths of air, in their pre-event warmups, between rounds – the sensory input of live fans was part of their ‘zone’ all along. 

Social media, second screens, streaming media – all these changes are undeniable and likely-permanent alterations to the “mediasport” landscape. But the Tokyo Games suggest that, perhaps, good old live audiences still matter too. A million silent tweets were not the same to our athletes as hands clapping, voices rising, the swell of energy on the homestretch or final minute. If Woolbert was able to notice in 1915 that “stirred air stirs meaning” in a speech situation, how stagnant was the meaning-making experience in the vacuous, vacant facilities of Tokyo 2020? 

Thinking of speech and audience interactions through the concept of the sensorium turns rhetoric into energy, an electricity running through bodies and across spaces. We saw amazing feats of athleticism on our screens, but did we – and, more importantly, did the athletes – fully feel the zip and zing of our sensorium circuits in those key moments?  Perhaps the athletes need us after all.  Paris anyone?

Sketch of the sensorium from Judson & Rodden (reproduced in Hawhee 2016):