Pandemic-caused sports bans costs fans their shared experiences

Jim Davies believes there are four reasons “why humans can’t do without sports.”

Playing sports prepares us to deal physically with the world. We practise skills that we once needed to survive — running, aiming and throwing were very important to hunters on the savannah.

Sports also stimulates our brains. The same brain areas that are stimulated by playing sports are also stimulated when watching sports, thanks to “mirror neurons.” That’s why spectators twitch in their seats when athletes fall.

We also watch out of appreciation for athletes’ physical excellence, the esthetic beauty of what they do.

And, finally, spectators are driven by an affinity for drama — which isn’t the same thing in sports as it is in movies. Moviegoers may not know exactly how a James Bond flick will end, but they know filming ended months ago, so they’re just waiting for pre-ordained events to play out. Sports competition, on the other hand, produces previously undetermined results.

What happens to sports fans, then, when the sports world shuts down, suddenly and indefinitely, as it has because of COVID-19?

 Jim Davies is a professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University.

“People can at least survive several months without their favourite sports, usually,” Davies, a professor in Carleton University’s Institute of Cognitive Science, says in reference to conclusions of normal sports seasons. “A major sports fan, of course, will have many other sports that they can follow.

“The sports experience, unlike a lot of other media entertainment, it’s very important that it’s live. You don’t see people buying, like, the first season of the Steelers football games from 30 years ago or whatever. They want to watch it in real time … You just want to have the experience with everybody watching at the same time in real time in a way that people don’t really care about as much with things like concerts and movies and theatre and that kind of thing.”

Erica Wiebe, an Olympic and Commonwealth games gold medallist from Stittsville, has experience in widely varying competitive arenas: “insanity” of professional wrestling shows in India; crowds of 15,000 far from the mat for the 2019 world wrestling championships in an arena in Kazakhstan; an intimate setting of 400 spectators mere feet from the action during Canadian team trials in a Niagara Falls theatre in December; and a small aggregation of officials, coaches and close family members in a convention room at Ottawa’s Shaw Centre for Pan-American Olympic qualifying in March.

That was during the early days of pandemic-related cancellations in Canada. With athletes, coaches and officials already in Ottawa, the wrestling qualifier proceeded as scheduled, though it did so without the general public.

 Olympic and Commonwealth games champion Erica Wiebe of Stittsville wrestled in the Pan-American Olympic qualifying competition in Ottawa in March, when fans were not allowed and the only observers included other athletes, coaches, officials and a few close family members.

“We pretty much physical distance anyways, getting ready for competition, so it wasn’t that, that different. We just stay in our hotel rooms and manage our weight and then go out when the time is right,” Wiebe says. “But the whole weekend was eerie. ‘Are we even going to do it? What’s happening in our world? Are my friends and family that have flown in from all over Canada going to be able to watch?’

“There were just so many things going through my mind … and I have to qualify for the Olympics.”

Needing to reach her division final to merit another Olympic opportunity, the 30-year-old Wiebe won five consecutive matches to claim the 76-kilogram freestyle title, becoming one of four Canadians — one other woman and two men — qualified to represent the country in wrestling in the Tokyo Summer Games that were subsequently rescheduled for 2021.

Davies says research shows preferences for team or individual sports is split along gender lines, with men generally picking the former and women selecting the latter, although there are obviously exceptions to that rule, and culture can favour a particular sport in a particular place, such as sumo wrestling in Japan.

The Carleton prof also says tribalism is a key component in how people choose favourite teams or athletes.

“The ancient idea of a champion fighting for or representing your country, it might be just one person. I don’t know if it really matters if it’s one person or 10 people or 20, as much as your identification of that player or players with your town or college or whatever,” he says.

Sometimes, unfortunately, fandom crosses the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, which is why soccer matches have been played in empty stadiums because of sanctions against clubs, but those tend to be one-off measures. Widespread suspension of sports following the September 2001 terror attacks on the United States was also temporary, and sports became rallying points.

Nineteen years later, everyone is still figuring out what sports and sports fans’ experiences will become after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark Lowes, an associate professor of communications at the University of Ottawa, says there’s an experience of being at live events “that I don’t think there’s any way you could capture that in any other way. The next best thing is maybe being at a sports bar or somewhere where the game is being broadcast. You’re surrounded by people that are having the same experience, so you still get that kind of connection that you don’t get if you’re watching at home or an isolated kind of environment.

“Who knows? Maybe that comes next, that you have these giant broadcasting or viewing events. If they end up coming back to play in empty stadiums and empty arenas and stuff, maybe that becomes the next best thing, which is to go to Scotiabank Place or wherever and watch a game with 10, 15,000 people on a screen.”

 Fans watch the World Cup final game between France and Croatia on the big screen at TD Place stadium in Ottawa on July 15, 2018.

Davies says the best comparisons for the lightning elimination of sports fans’ sports fixes would be the sudden death of celebrated athletes or scandals leading to expulsion of individuals or teams, but for now teams can’t even get together “for fear of the contagion.

“But there are certain sports, and golf is one of them, where you don’t actually need to be playing at the same time. I don’t know if anyone has ever even tried, but there’s no reason you couldn’t have each golfer alone on the course, one after the other, doing it,” he says. “Same with any kind of race or any sport where you’re not directly interacting with the other competitors. You’re just trying to beat some terrain or a score or something like that. In those cases, you could have separation of the athletes and then watching through some kind of media interface and I think there could be a kind of excitement with watching it at the same time live.

“For the same reason a lot of people watch television sports, more people watch television sports, they get something out of it even though they’re not there in person.”

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