With the Euros now in full swing, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, some of the more sentimental sporting fans out there, will, I’m sure, have their tissues at the ready. Because, if the performance of a Wales fan who couldn’t stop weeping when his team recently beat Russia is anything to go by, it seems that watching sport often goes hand-in-hand with a good cry.
When London hosted the Olympic games in 2012, the combination of patriotic pride and sporting success created an irresistible opportunity for crying – one that was taken not only by medal-winning athletes and audiences at home, but also even by the broadcasters interviewing athletes on television.
People have been crying at sports for years, particularly at the Olympics, where national pride further ramps up the emotion levels, for stars and spectators alike. The earliest examples of crying in the games I found, in researching my book about the history of weeping, were shed by medal winners at the 1956 games in Melbourne.
Come 1996, the number of athletes weeping in Atlanta, Georgia, earned that Summer Olympics the title of “The Crying Games”. And in 2004, in Athens, the British rower Matthew Pinsent shed tears the “size of gobstoppers”, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Rod Liddle, writing in The Spectator, was appalled: “Eton apparently taught Matthew Pinsent very little”. He said: “It is all well and good to be able to row a small boat very quickly, but nothing excuses blubbing like a baby – or, worse, a foreigner – up on the medal podium in Athens”.
The weeping man
It is the figure of the weeping man in particular that has repeatedly been held up in the media as an emotional exemplar, despite the protestations of dry-eyed dinosaurs like Rod Liddle.
This process was accelerated during the 1970s as a range of figures, including the agony aunts and journalists Marje Proops and Bel Mooney, celebrated the tears of men such as the Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe, who wept on the pitch after his side’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Arsenal in 1973.
“I admire a man who can burst into tears”, Marje Proops wrote in her column, “who clobbers the stiff upper lip image of the British male at a stroke by letting the tears flow, unashamedly unchecked. And remains undeniably manly.”
The occasion is still remembered by Sunderland fans as one of the most emotional in their club’s history. One of those who was there in 1973, recalls that as the final whistle sounded, an elderly man “threw his arms around me and then broke down in tears on my shoulder”, saying: ‘We’re gannin’ to Wembley yer bugga, we’re gannin’ to Wembley!’“
And just look at Paul Gascoigne and his famous "Gazza crying” moment. The tears rolled down his face at the 1990 World Cup, after he received a booking in England’s semi-final against West Germany which would have ruled him out of the final if his side had got there. The nation’s collective lower lip went all wobbly, and I’m sure many grown men had a good sob along with Gazza and his yellow card.
The age of crying
Tears may have been a rarity then, but today we live in a new age of sensibility. Crying is everywhere, televised tears run down the cheeks of soap actors, celebrities, and reality stars, while we sit on our sofas sobbing in response. We cry in our millions over history shows and makeover shows, singing competitions and baking competitions, while nostalgically asking ourselves whatever happened to the stiff upper lip.
In this respect, we resemble our 18th-century ancestors, who shed buckets of tears over sentimental novels, public executions and paintings of dying soldiers. The age of the stiff upper lip, meanwhile, only got going towards the end of the Victorian era, and enjoyed its heyday in the first half of the 20th century.
While it was often sermons or stage tragedies that moved our ancestors to tears, for us, modern sport is one of the spectacles that provides such an opportunity. For the sportsmen and women themselves, it may be that the thought of the sacrifices they made on the way to their moment of triumph, or an awareness of the fact that this fleeting victory may be the peak of their professional lives, that prompts their tears.
For those of us weeping among the spectators or on our sofas at home, what we are doing is not so different from someone who weeps over the grief of Mary Magdalene or the woes of Titus Andronicus – namely, experiencing our common humanity and performing it through our body. Sport can do that every bit as much as religion or theatre – two of the main routes to tears in earlier eras.
Our tears are orators, announcing sometimes admiration, sometimes pity, for the achievements and sufferings of sporting performers. It is easy enough to see that crying is a social, and sociable, activity, arising from an identification and empathy with the life stories of others.
Nevertheless, the evolution and physiology of weeping remain something of a mystery. No one really knows why humans alone are capable of weeping, nor exactly what it does for us. There have been various theories over the years, including one shared by the BBC broadcaster Chris Evans with Paula Radcliffe when she ran her last, tearful, London Marathon in 2015. According to Evans, happy tears, unlike sad ones, don’t taste salty.
I am not aware of any scientific research supporting Evans’ theory, but it’s something that can be put to the test by both athletes and spectators during the remainder of the Euros and the upcoming Olympic games – when we can all have a good cry, whether our team is winning or losing. Because it’s clear that when it comes to crying, it’s the taking part that counts.