Sounds of the Olympics

Like many people in the UK, I’ve come down with a severe case of Olympic fever over the last couple of weeks, finding myself living all the clichés. Temporarily shelving misgivings about large-scale gentrification, corporate sponsorship and dubious legacy claims, I’ve been shouting at television sets, developing unexpected enthusiasm for any sport in which brits are doing even moderately well, and generally joining in with the party.

One thing I hadn’t anticipated was quite how important sound seems to be to the proceedings. British competitors have repeatedly remarked upon the overwhelming volume of cheering from the home support. At Wimbledon, where audiences are usually fairly well mannered, the volume was cranked up for the Olympic tennis, turning Andy Murray’s matches into proper rowdy affairs. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis said that the crowd was so loud it gave her goosebumps, and made her want to raise her game even further. The ovation she received when she won gold – 80,000 people all screaming their heads off – must surely be one of the biggest unamplified human sound events the nation has ever produced, a stunning piece of collectively improvised noise music.

This has led to a series of headlines about Olympic noise. Cyclist Mark Cavendish said that his ears were ringing after the road race, and in the velodrome noise levels reportedly reached almost 140 decibels (A-weighted, one assumes) during finals involving Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. That’s easily loud enough to cause hearing damage. Most of the headlines have been celebratory – noise in this context is being constructed as an outpouring of fun, enthusiasm, conviviality, patriotism. The noise abatement discourse has been notably muted, although there have been some (belated, probably very sensible, but likely to be ignored) suggestions that athletes should wear earplugs, and some grumblings about the loud music being played at venues. There is a detailed noise management plan for the games, which cites a raft of applicable regulations, but in relation to crowd noise it makes this rather intriguing statement: “No precedent and no locus in law for controlling human activity or crowd noise.” This was somewhat unfortunate for the Australian rowers, who complained that the noise from the Team GB supporters was drowning out the calls their rowers use to synchronise with each other in their boats.

And then there are the sounds of the sporting action: splashes, smacks, thunks, pings, swishes. In the sound sculpture slot on Radio 4 at the weekend, an archer explained how the click of the bow’s mechanism and the thud of arrows hitting the target give him important cues as to whether he is on target or not. During one of the tennis games, I found myself able to judge that certain shots were going out before the ball landed – an overhit was obvious from the heavy plunk of ball on racket. There has also been some commentary about the sounds made by athletes, such as grunts and whistles.

Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara in the road race time trials.

I was lucky enough to attend the road race time trials whilst in London last week, and took a full and enthusiastic part in the mexican wave of shouting surging through Surrey as Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins whizzed past. Wiggins later said that the noise had been phenomenal and almost deafening, without any gap for the whole 44 kilometres of the course. But for most of us, most of the time, our experiences of sporting soundscapes take place at more distant times and places, through radio, television, computers or handheld devices. The three dimensional, full frequency swirling mass of vibrations inside a stadium ends up being squished down and scrunched out by a little mono speaker at the back of your telly.

Olympics presenters have repeatedly pointed out how impossible it is to convey to people watching at home just how loud the venues are. At one point during the opening ceremony, one commentator suggested that viewers should turn their TVs up a bit just to get a better sense of what it was ‘really’ like. This raises the question of fidelity, as discussed by Jonathan Sterne (2003), following Michel Chion, Rick Altman and others. Sterne questions the notion that audio technology operates by reproducing an (always imperfect) ‘copy’ of an ‘original’ sound event. He points out that the idea of ‘original’ sound events only arises once ‘copies’ are possible. Thus the very existence of sports broadcasting is what enables claims to be made about the superiority of actually ‘being there’.

We might therefore think of audio more as an art of creative production than reproduction. The evidence bears this out in relation to sports broadcasting. What might seem like a highly realistic sound track will invariably have been carefully constructed to convey the action, making full use of the magic of modern audio technologies. Check out this podcast, in which some of the key players in sports sound design lift the lid on the tricks of their trade:


Thus sound engineering for sports broadcasts might be compared to film or computer game sound design, in which, as Sterne and Chion would have it, definition (i.e. sound conveying a clear sense of the action taking place) is more important than fidelity (i.e. the accurate ‘capture’ and reproduction of what might be a more muffled, masked or mundane reality). Take diving for example. The walkway at the top of the diving boards is rigged with multiple shotgun mics, the audio equivalent of an array of zoom lenses. These pick up intimate sounds of the divers walking, moving, breathing and speaking, sounds that would be all but inaudible to a spectator at the venue. Hydrophones are also submerged in the pool to pick up sounds as the divers enter the water. Other techniques include the use of contact mics on gymnastics equipment to pick up the movement of the bars. You can read more about this and listen to some audio examples here.

At risk of being brand policed...

To conclude, here’s a clip of one of my favourite pieces of Olympics-related broadcasting: a Freudian slip from Jim Naughtie on Radio 4’s Today Programme, in the run up to the games, mispronouncing the word Arcelor:


The Orbit. Photo from

Which one's the biggest Arcelor? Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP via the Guardian