On a mild winter’s afternoon on February 22, 2009, Salt Lake Stadium in Calcutta—that bursting cauldron of heaving, imprecating football enthusiasts—witnessed something unusual. Subhash Bhowmick, the newly-appointed coach of the East Bengal team, hurriedly walked towards a section of the stands packed with red and gold shirts, banners and festoons. The burly coach took upon himself the onerous task of cheerleader, goading thousands of rabid East Bengal fans to keep up their partisan chants with over an hour to go before kick-off. It was an I-League match; East Bengal came into the showpiece ‘derby’ with a depressing record against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.
In nine derby matches starting August 2007, East Bengal had lost to the green-maroons six times. A hassled club management had sent an SOS to Bhowmick, holidaying in Shantiniketan after resigning as Salgaocar coach, to save the club from the continuing ignominy. On Christmas Day 2008, Bhowmick replaced Stanley Rozario for the upcoming IFA Shield and the remainder of the I-League (national league). This was Bhowmick’s third stint as East Bengal coach. He had been immensely successful with the red-and-golds during his 2001-04 tenure. Among the dozen trophies the club won, the Asean Club Cup victory in July 2003 stood out.
“When I arrived, the club’s morale and the confidence level of the players were in the pits. We were scheduled to play Mohun Bagan in a second leg I-League match in a couple of weeks and I was determined that this game will turn everything around. We were training hard but I realised that the only thing that can galvanise the boys would be the passionate fans. Much before the team started warming up, I went to the East Bengal section of the stands and like a bandmaster egged the fans to build up the mood for the players. The high-pitch team chant was enough for them. That day, East Bengal was like a team possessed. We beat Mohun Bagan 3-0. The roar of 1,00,000 fans from either camp was something to behold,” remembers Bhowmick.
Such scenes, replicated in grand arenas around the world wherever team sports have mass following, are suddenly held in abeyance; empty bleachers stare mutely at vacant turfs; echoes of past tumult linger on in the high vaults. After weeks of Covid lockdown, professional sports gingerly resumed on May 16 with the Bundesliga. The German football league was followed by the English Premier League, Spanish and Italian championships. They were preyed upon by the ‘new normal’—held in empty, cavernous stadiums. An unnatural, eerie hush envelops the action on the field.
“The one key characteristic for striving in times like these comes from Charles Darwin, who stated that the ones who adapt the best will survive. Only that it is less about actual survival now, but more about striving and adapting to the situation,” explains Niklas D. Neumann, a research scholar of sport and performance psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
“In a world with ever-changing circumstances, athletes must have the ability to adapt. How athletes respond to playing in empty stadiums can’t be generalised since it is individual-specific. Some players or even whole teams may benefit from it in a way that they perform better, some may be unaffected, while others succumb,” says Neumann.
Two of India’s greatest sportspersons—Sachin Tendulkar and M.C. Mary Kom—feel empty stadiums can be detrimental to performance. High-performing athletes like Usain Bolt draw energy from fans and Tendulkar feels social distancing, that new imperative, doesn’t work in live sports events. “I was always excited to play in Calcutta (Eden Gardens), Chennai (Chepauk) and Mumbai (Wankhede). Fans came in huge numbers, sat in compact groups, were knowledgeable, passionate and really drove us,” says Tendulkar, who fondly recalls the famous, deafening “Eden roar” that can be heard from miles away. Mary Kom, a six-time world amateur boxing champion, shares a similar view. “Empty stadiums mean less excitement, so our motivation suffers. Cheering from fans and family is part of our strength,” says Mary.
Unlike football or cricket, where team chants—in a variety of wails, shrieks, even the fearsome Icelandic ‘Huh’—play a major role in boosting the ‘dopamine effect’, “individual athletes adjust to the noise factor in different ways”, says Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, a sports and performance psychologist. Dopamine, a hormone responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells, is also a mood regulator and is associated with happiness and emotions.
Tokyo-bound shooters Angad Bajwa (shotgun) and Anjum Moudgil (rifle) say the noise factor has no significance in their sport, which is all about focus and precision. “Once we are in our shooting stations, we simply cut off distraction. We are so focused that our minds are tuned to negate any effect of noise,” says Bajwa. Anjum concurs: “Shooting will remain a non-spectator sport. In international events we are virtually on our own. We don’t look around for support. The authorities were keen to increase fan participation but the virus will act as a dampner,” said Anjum.
Virtual fans and crowd simulation have already been tried at high stakes events like the Indian Premier League or the English Premier League, where global broadcast rights are sold for billions of dollars. However, Dr Sridhar says virtual can never replace the real and at the end of the day “athletes have to adjust to any condition because performance is directly proportional to livelihoods”.
“The relationship between fans and athletes and fans among themselves is very unique and sometimes not comprehensible to outsiders. They are dependent on each other, creating a unique, interdependent culture and I think only live events bring that to life. People meet others in person and have to react to their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. All that is limited in a virtual environment,” explains Neumann. “If you ever had a meeting or a presentation online you will know how different it feels compared to live situations,” he adds.
The concept of ‘home’ advantage has been transformed too. Interestingly, there seems to be an inverse trend in the home advantage situation in soccer. The ratio between winning and losing at home games was about 60 per cent to 40 per cent; the trends are the exact opposite now. Reasons can be multifaceted, but two factors stand out: less (visible and acoustic) support for the home team and less pressure, exerted by the opponent’s fans, for the guest team.
Organisers in an apparent rush to fill their coffers will now have a rethink on staging events in the near future after Novak Djokovic received death threats in Croatia for his role in the controversial Adria tour. The world No. 1 tennis player’s charity tournament in the Croatian city of Split became a Covid hotspot after social distancing rules were openly flouted. Not only did Djokovic and his wife Jelena catch the virus, but coach Goran Ivanisevic and other participants like Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki were all infected. “Why are we in such tearing hurry to flout safety rules and host events?” asks Tendulkar. Dr Sridhar says such brazen indiscretion will hurt. “Athletes are yearning to go out and compete but it can’t be at the cost of lives. If empty stadiums are a solution in the interim, where is the harm?” she asks.
On March 24, when Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown, sportspersons like Virat Kohli, Tendulkar, and Mary Kom et al featured in campaigns promoting social distancing and other precautions in a bid to halt the virus. For other sportspersons too, now is the time to walk their exhortative talk. Sports can send a social message of wellness because an exquisite cover drive or a bicycle kick will prompt the same adrenaline rush in us even before a television set.