As we face into a new GAA season with uncertainty about fans at games we’re all wondering: will sport ever be normal again?
And what will that normal be?
Will it be the old normal where we blithely piled into a car with a few others and drove to Killarney, Limerick or Thurles in chaotic traffic? Then blithely piled into a pub with dozens of others, five deep at the bar? And then (suitably fortified) blithely piled into a crammed terrace or stand with thousands of others to share the great spectacle of sport?
Or are those days gone forever to be replaced by some new and lessened normal?
I was talking to a Limerick man a while back and he said he wasn’t sure if he’d be returning to packed inter-county championship hurling games. I said it would a shame not to witness again the greatest Limerick team in a generation, maybe the greatest ever.
‘But would you want, to, Tadhg?’ he said. ‘Be in the middle of a crowd like that again?’
‘Ah, things will get better,’ I said, trying to convince myself more than him. But when I saw video clips of the Six60 concert in Eden Park, Auckland, last weekend attended by 50,000 unmasked, undistanced, undaunted Kiwis, I thought: Yes, someday.
The depth of my longing to re-experience that coming together surprised me.
Why do we want to be part of sporting crowds and what does it do for us?
I think a lot of it relates to childhood and when we were initiated to sport.
I can trace my sporting initiation to a memory of watching Con Roche score a goal for Cork in a Munster final against Tipperary direct from a sideline cut in 1971 when I was 10 years old *.
I can still feel the detonation of noise go through me as the ball hit the net. But it didn’t go through me, did it? It stayed inside me, impregnating me. At that moment I realised for the first time that I could be part of something far bigger than myself and it felt good. I’ve been trying to relive that first high at every game since.
You can probably remember yours.
Tom McIntyre refers to this as taking refuge in the collective, and as pack mammals we want that. We want to be on the crowded side of the street, safe among our own. Sport is closely tied into community and identity — our sense of self, even our sense of self-worth. But it’s not enough to experience this identity, we need to share it, especially in the hope of winning. When we lose — to paraphrase Tolstoy — we are miserable in our own way, but when we win, we win as one big happy multi-generational family.
Something happens to us in crowds and we’re missing that now. In a crowd we can escape ourselves; we can — as Elias Canetti said in his book Crowds and Power — overcome the fear of the other and the unknown. In the crowd everybody is equal. There are no distinctions: man/woman, old/young, rich/poor, good/bad, black/white doesn’t matter. At the moment of the crowd’s discharge, the individual can let himself or herself go and actually become the crowd. I first learned that power when I was ten. I miss it. Sport isn’t sport without it. Life isn’t life without it.
The crowd is a double-edged sword. It enables us to express emotion — not the easiest thing, especially for men. But to be part of the collective we have to obey the rules of the collective — we have to conform. If the crowd feels anger and resentment, so do we, and because we are anonymous in the crowd we can let ourselves go in a way that is unthinkable in normal life.
We saw that in Washington DC on January 6. It’s one of the great pitfalls of social media, too. But in sporting crowds we can still somehow hold on to the reality that we are there to share a type of play — one that ends at the final whistle, whatever the stakes.
As we sit down to enjoy the hurling and football matches in our living rooms over the coming weeks — alone or in small family pods — we will miss the crowds we used to share games with; the crowds we used to become.
But in another way we will be part of a virtual crowd, with others of our own kind in their living rooms, shouting at their televisions; staying in touch by phone, WhatsApp or social media.
Picture this. When you are eventually allowed to rejoin real crowds at games, and when you feel safe enough to do so, you arrive early the first time to take it all in. Looking around the ground everything appears familiar but strangely different, as if seen through new eyes.
Your breath catches and your chest tightens when you see your team take to the pitch. The announcer calls you to stand for the national anthem. You rise slowly and turn to face the tricolour. You know what’s coming but you allow it to happen anyway. You can’t stop it, really. So you let everything out — everything.
Nobody takes any notice of you. We’re all too busy doing the same thing.
* I have found out recently that this memory is incorrect, but that’s another story.