Philip Barker

At the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Athletics Championships, which came to an end last weekend, a son et lumiere with electronic lights flashing names around the Khalifa International Stadium accompanied the introduction of athletes before competition.

There were some who criticised the length of time athletes were on track before their events, but Olympic and World champion Michael Johnson, working for BBC Television, gave the whole spectacle the thumbs up.

"This is appropriate for these athletes coming out here getting ready for a really important moment," he said. "I like the idea of having this sort of build-up. It probably gets them jazzed up."

Athletics is a sport which lends itself to a little extra. At the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, mascot "Berlino" caught the imagination in a way no mascots have done before or since.

At any one time, there might be two field events at opposite ends of the stadium and a race on the track. The use of the big screen to draw the attention towards field events has been welcome.

Another part of the presentation is music during races. At the Glasgow Commonwealth Games it was 500 miles by The Proclaimers. Predictably, Usain Bolt danced along as he warmed up for his relay final, although not all athletics aficionados were quite as enthusiastic.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe has spoken at length of the need to engage the audience. He might just have recalled his first Olympic final at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. A simple tone announced the entry of the athletes behind an official. No dramatic introductions, less than 40 seconds later the 800 metres race was underway.

Event presentation at the IAAF World Championships in Doha included putting up all the finalists names in lights ©Getty images
Event presentation at the IAAF World Championships in Doha included putting up all the finalists names in lights ©Getty images

Today, it does rather seem that the sound of silence must never prevail, yet when organised sport was in its infancy, the entertainment was rather more practical. At 18th century cricket, the priority was "a very good cold collation was spread out under a covered recess for the accommodation of the cricketers and subscribers. Two tents were also prepared with refreshments for the spectators". These details rated a mention in the Daily Universal Register, later better known as The Times of London.

Music from a brass band was often part of the entertainment, though in 1850, the Royal Artillery Band played throughout a cricket match between "I Zingari" and a Parliamentary team held at Lord’s. Bell’s Life magazine reported that Herbert Curteis "was out of time and out of tune" bowling a wide and three no balls because the music "put him out of his usual walk up to the wicket".

When a "Grand Olympic Festival" was held in Liverpool in the 1860s, a band "added materially to the pleasure of the company by performing selections of popular music in capital style".

When the first Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, the Athens Philharmonia were part of the in-stadium entertainment.

It was around that time that Everton Football Club opened their new Goodison Park ground in Liverpool’s Stanley Park. Fireworks formed the climax to the evening, fully 100 years before the inaugural season of the FA Premier League had pyrotechnics, inflatable sumo wrestlers, bands and even "Sky Strikers" cheerleaders as part of its "spectator experience".

The most famous cheering squad of recent times was a group of some 200 North Koreans at the 2018 Winter Olympics Games in Pyeongchang. They outnumbered the actual competitors by 10 to one.

They might have been horrified to learn that the first cheerleaders were born in the United States. First seen at colleges in the 19th century, the Americans soon transformed their chants to the Olympic arena.

North Korean cheerleaders captured the world's attention during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images
North Korean cheerleaders captured the world's attention during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang ©Getty Images

Organisers did not yet regard engaging the spectators as a priority, though they made sure the 1908 Olympic marathon in London finished in front of the Royal Box.

There was no loudspeaker system, just a man with a rather large megaphone. In boxing, this soon became a man with a microphone, although it wasn't until much later that heavily choreographed ring walks became part of the show.

At the world famous Wembley Stadium, which opened in 1923, pre-match entertainment consisted of a marching display and "community singing". T. P. Ratcliff was a one-time physical training instructor who dressed all in white to conduct the impromptu choristers, each furnished with a songsheet by one of the national newspapers. The repertoire included the hymn Abide with Me. It is still played today.

After the Second World War, Ratcliff's baton was literally taken up by Arthur Caiger, who became so identified with the community singing that his tombstone carries a memorial.

At the 1958 World Cup, host nation Sweden had a cheerleader to work the crowd, though it was another 20 years before the new North American Soccer League took the idea further in matches involving teams with names like New York Cosmos, Los Angeles Aztecs and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Their all female troupe of cheerleaders was known as "The Wowdies". To them, soccer was "a kick in the grass" which still had much ground to make up on American football and baseball.

When the Chicago Cubs entertained the St Louis Cardinals in 1941, the match was notable for what the Sporting News called "the restful dulcet tones of a pipe organ". This lent itself to what was described as "the sensational baseball song". Written in 1908, Take me out to the Ball Game became the anthem for the sport.

In the late 1930s, the redoubtable Gladys Goodding began her career. She played for the New York Rangers in ice hockey, the Knicks in basketball and the Dodgers in baseball in the same season - on the organ!

Gladys would also play and sing the American national anthem but her musical choices were occasionally more subversive. When the umpires emerged, she once launched into Three Blind Mice. "After the game, I apologised to the head umpire Bill Stewart and he forgave me," she recalled later. "Mine was a wonderful relationship with players and fans. Before the game, I would serenade the players on their birthdays."

Organ music at the ice hockey was a fixture and fans readily joined in. The music rose to a crescendo as the home team attacked.

In the late 1970s, the arrival of jumbo screens at sports arenas signaled a fade out for many organists.

Promoters came up with new ideas such as "Kiss Cam". US Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter have all been the focus of its attention.

By the new Millennium, pumping music was here to stay. The European Football Championships and World Cups featured a countdown to kickoff on the big screen. The idea was also embraced by hockey and handball where piped music came in during pauses in play. At the Rugby World Cup, teams enter to the beating of traditional Taiko drums and the gong sounds when the clock "goes red" at the end of each half, certainly an improvement on the hooter.

Sometimes organisers get it badly wrong with music and interventions at the wrong time.

The Closing Ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast came in for unprecedented criticism and athletes left the arena in droves before the show had even begun.

London 2012 promised top-level entertainment during the beach volleyball but ended up offering young dancers gyrating along to the theme track from the Benny Hill Show ©Getty Images
London 2012 promised top-level entertainment during the beach volleyball but ended up offering young dancers gyrating along to the theme track from the Benny Hill Show ©Getty Images

Music could be heard at every event, including lawn bowls. Gold Coast 2018 chief executive Mark Peters insisted "every spectator that comes here, besides seeing an incredibly high standard of bowls, is actually going to be entertained as well". It was a revealing Freudian slip. During the Games a volunteer spent each day offering a "high five" to every single spectator.

Yet when it came to the actual sport, the traditional tiny scoreboard at the end of each rink was not easy to see. No information was forthcoming for the casual spectator to decipher the hand signals made by the umpire and players. It was the same at many other sports, where real spectator interaction was replaced by indiscriminate music.

"Elite sport in itself is not enough (despite the sell-out attendances) and crowds need aural cues and artificial stimuli," wrote Rob Bagchi in The Guardian bemoaning the trend. "It is as if the people who make these decisions do not trust the intrinsic value of what they are selling."

At the Indian Premier League Cricket, every wicket or six is accompanied by dancing cheerleaders.

At Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, the scoreboard even prompted spectators when to clap and "do a Mexican wave". Event hosts often urge the crowd to "make some noise", yet routinely forget to tell them what is happening on the field of play.

An executive in charge of beach volleyball at London 2012 promised entertainment "taken to another level". What did we get? A conga around the stand to Yakety Sax, better known as the music used by 1970s comedian Benny Hill.

There is nothing more inspiring than the roar of a crowd when a goal or try is scored or a race is won, yet so often at everything from domestic events to Olympic and World Championships, the spontaneous cheering of the crowd is drowned out, apparently by a pre-choreographed routine which all too often includes the White Stripes hit Seven Nation Army

Oh for a return to the witty asides of Gladys and her organ.