Why are some sporting moments more memorable than others? Sure, an eye-catching performance or pass will get tongues wagging, but the atmosphere or context of the match also carries an awful lot of weight. The match itself might not be exciting, but the feelings generated on that day, of animosity, tension, excitement, euphoria and despair stay with you.
While tribalism and nationalism have plenty of negative elements, it does alter people’s perceptions of sporting contests to make the experience more enjoyable. We feel an intense affiliation to a set of people with whom we have no connection other than birthplace and nationality. Only tiny villages or hamlets allow everyone to know everyone else personally. Anything bigger than that and, as Benedict Anderson says, it is an ‘‘imagined community.’’ A classic example of this was the game between England and Wales on Thursday. It wasn’t just a case of 11 v 11, it was two nations vying for supremacy. In the end, the game itself wasn’t a great spectacle, but the historical context and atmosphere surrounding the match made for gripping viewing.
Rivalries also develop not only due to geographical proximity, but also between two successful teams and players. In the Open era, the rivalries like the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have captured the imagination. When you have two players at the top of their game pushing each other, excitement inevitably builds. One match that stands out in my memory was the 2008 Wimbledon final between the two players. The contest took place before the installation of the Centre Court roof, and due to a few rain delays the tension was drawn out over an excruciating seven-and-a-half hours, during which time some spellbinding shots were played. The raucous nature of the crowd on that day told you that this match was incredible. There have been games of similar length and competitiveness in earlier rounds of Grand Slams, but these games were not accompanied by such fanfare.
If Federer and Nadal were playing a match in a public park with the same intensity as that day eight years ago, would there be that same awe and excitement? Definitely not. This may be because we know there would be nothing at stake, but it demonstrates that we do not rank sporting moments by quality of performance alone. The stage matters, as a Washington Post social experiment found. We often do not notice beauty when we see it unexpectedly.
In sports like boxing or MMA, the question of atmosphere in putting a bout in the history books holds even greater levels of significance, pitting individual against individual in the most primal way. The tributes to Muhammad Ali following his death a fortnight ago reminded the world of his lyrical skill and his ability to psyche himself up while intimidating and riling his opponents before they had set foot in the ring. Conor McGregor, although somewhat different in style and not as well known, has taken on that mantle in a sense. This ability to build excitement for a contest is helped by the fact that athletes in combat sports may only have two or three fights a year. Despite being in the arena for a miniscule amount of time relative to training, they still command the attention of millions of fans around the world, many of whom will pay eye-watering sums of money to see their idols compete.
To sum up, it is undoubtedly true that moments of genius live long in the memory. However, these moments always resonate most when they are accompanied by a feverish atmosphere, when the crowd truly recognises that what they are witnessing is special.
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