Flows of Affect in the Olympic Stadium

by Nick J. Fox
University of Sheffield

Sociological Research Online, 18 (2) 2

Received: 21 Dec 2012     Accepted: 27 Feb 2013    Published: 31 May 2013


I explore the contribution that emotions made to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, but from a perspective that downplays individualised or embodied analysis of emotion, and oppositions between the 'emotional' and the 'rational'. Instead, emotions are understood as one component within a broader 'flow of affect' within an Olympic assemblage of physical, biological, cultural, social and economic relations. I supply an 'affective' sociology of the Games, focusing upon the capacities produced in competitors, audiences, media, spaces and physical entities such as the stadia and Olympic Park, and how these together produced the Games and their legacy.

Keywords: Affect, Assemblage, Emotion, Deleuze, Olympics

Introduction: Olympic emotions

1.1 Few would question that the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics were suffused with emotions.[1] From the scenes of tumultuous acclaim greeting the award of the Olympics to London in 2005, through the highs and lows, ecstasies, laughter and tears of Olympian and Paralympian victors and losers, to the collective sigh in the Olympic stadium when the flame was finally extinguished on 9 September 2012, the Games were marked by outpourings of emotion from competitors, audiences, broadcasters and politicians. After the 100m victory by Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt, BBC viewers were shown a replay of the scene within the commentary box, with presenters on their feet, screaming in support as the runner breached the finishing line. Only former US gold-medallist sprinter Michael Johnson, ever professional and perhaps underwhelmed by a Jamaican victory, remained seated, indeed turned away both from the action on the track and his maniacal colleagues, studiously reading his notes.

1.2 Sport may indeed be an arena redolent with expressed emotion, as are many aspects of 'private' life (Lupton 1998: 170). A rather trivial analysis might thus explore how the Olympics, for a while at least, captured the hearts and minds of a substantial proportion of the public, media and politicians in Britain and further afield, while producing negative emotions in others. [2] To some extent, the sociology of Olympic emotion is constrained by theory: as Ahmed (2004: 8) and Navaro-Yashin (2009: 12) have noted, often sociological theories of emotions – whether informed by interactionism, social constructionism, phenomenology or psychoanalysis – have been predicated upon the individual or experiential character of embodied emotion. However, a thread within sociology has always acknowledged how, alongside reasoned choices and decisions, what humans feel has a part to play in producing the world, from the progression of a conversation to the shaping of global politics and economics (Jaggar 1992: 153; Jasper 2011: 286). Durkheim (1976: 218) recognised the part that 'collective effervescence' played in religion and social movements, and others have noted how emotions contribute to the workplace, business, markets and political action and struggle (Summers-Effler 2002; Thrift 2004: 57). As Jasper (2008: 398) notes,

Not only are emotions part of our responses to events, but they also – in the form of deep affective attachments – shape the goals of our actions. There are positive emotions and negative ones, admirable and despicable ones, public and hidden ones. Without them, there might be no social action at all.

1.3 In this paper, and following Ahmed (2004: 4) and Tamboukou (2003: 211–2), I will examine this latter aspect of Olympic emotion: the part emotions play in producing the social world. I want to ask about the social effects of emotions in the Olympics: what did this emotion do? Did it merely produce joy or sadness in bodies, and then dissipate into the psychic ether surrounding the stadia, or did emotions actually contribute to the social production of the Olympics, and produce capacities for action in individuals and collectivities, contemporaneously and into the future? With this question in mind, I advance here an approach that locates emotions as a sub-component of a broader interactivity between bodies, other entities and the social that produces unfolding lives, societies and history.

Affective sociology

2.1 A recent 'affective turn' (Blackman and Venn 2010; Clough 2008; Leys 2011) in the humanities, cultural theory and certain social sciences has been motivated by concerns to overcome the limitations of an over-rationalised understanding of human action (Leys 2011: 436), and to disclose 'a common ontology linking the social and the natural, the mind and body, the cognitive and affective' (Blackman and Venn 2010: 7). Within this corpus, the Spinozist model set out by Gilles Deleuze (1988, 1990), while establishing 'affect' (meaning simply a capacity to affect or be affected) as the force producing bodies, identities and the social world, [3] makes a clear distinction between affect and emotion (Massumi 1996: 221; Thrift 2004: 59–60). In this perspective, all social production (of bodies, subjectivities, thoughts, social forms and institutions, and political and economic orders) emerged from affective flows within transient and unstable networks or 'assemblages'[4] of bodies, things, social institutions and abstractions (Deleuze 1988: 127–128). The flow of affect between assembled elements is the means by which lives, societies and history unfold (Thrift 2004: 61).

2.2 Some affects produce physical effects on things or bodies: for instance, the tensile properties of steel and concrete in the build environment of the Olympic Park, or the interaction of gravity, inertia and muscle-power within an athlete's body. A thought or an attitude may affect dispositions (for instance, a decision to attend an event or cheer for a certain competitor). These in turn may produce subjectivity (as an athlete, an Olympic volunteer or a citizen). Affects can produce social forms (the 'Olympic movement'; nationalism, and so forth), and these forms can be affected by other affects (for instance, medal success). A proportion of affects will produce a capacity to feel, what is commonly called an emotional response (a feeling of happiness, ecstasy, pride and so forth). Some affects produce multiple capacities: a tune such as the Chariots of Fire theme may produce emotional responses in listeners, a decision to buy Olympic tickets, and revenue for the copyright-holders, and these capacities in turn may produce subsequent affects. In this way, affects flow within assemblages: one affect producing changes that in turn produce other changes, ad infinitum.[5] Clough (2004: 15) described this process of transformation as an 'affect economy', in which affective capacities switch bodies 'from one mode to another in terms of attention, arousal, interest, receptivity, stimulation, attentiveness, action, reaction, and inaction'.

2.3 Emotions are both shaped by social and cultural processes (Lupton 1998: 2) and produce reactions in bodies (Ahmed 2004: 25; Freund 1990: 453). From the perspective of affective sociology, emotions may be regarded as capacities produced by flows of affect, alongside physical or rational capacities. But importantly, because emotions may alter or augment capacities or desires (Deleuze 1990: 246), they are themselves also affects, and like other affects, contribute to the general flow. So rather than regarding emotions as a peculiarly remarkable confluence between biology and culture, or as opposed to rational choices by individuals or collectivities (Leys 2011: 436), we may locate emotions as part of a wider continuum of affectivity between bodies, things, ideas and the social environment (Tamboukou 2003: 211; Youdell & Armstrong 2011: 145).

2.4 As affective flows are the means of production of bodies, the social world and human history, this suggests that emotions may play a part in social production, as affects that can coerce, discipline, habituate, subjectify, provide meanings or otherwise shape bodies and the social world. Sociologically, this both downgrades the distinctiveness of emotion as a confluence of biology and culture, and accords it a more extensive part in social production. Because affective flows within assemblages of bodies, things, social forms and concepts cut across micro- and macro-levels, public and private, institutional and autonomous realms, it is conceivable that the roar of a crowd for a favoured athlete could produce a flow of affect that will resonate in all kinds of ways, far beyond the confines of a stadium. In the context of this paper, this analysis suggests exploration of the flows of affect in and around the physical and virtual environments of the 2012 Olympics. Based on my sociological assessment of London 2012 (including my experiences as a spectator), I reflect upon how affects (including emotions) produced in the Olympic Stadium flowed out into the social world, affecting life far beyond the Olympic Park.

The Olympic affect economy

3.1 Affect has flowed for almost three millennia in an Olympic-assemblage, from the Games' inception as sublimated conflict in ancient Greece, to the emergence of the modern Olympic ideal in 1894, through the 1995 award of the Games to London, to the Olympic and Paralympic sporting events of the summer, and now towards Rio and beyond. This rhizomic flow in the Olympic assemblage involves social, political, economic, geographical, architectural, biological and medical, and of course sporting relations.

3.2 Since the award of the Games to London, the flow has produced political, social and economic affects, transforming tracts of rundown brown-field acreage in east London into the Olympic Park, and producing massive positive and negative effects on the local population and economy now and for generations to come in terms of investment, transport infrastructure, sporting facilities, housing and commercial opportunities. It made or enhanced a number of political careers, including Sebastian, Lord Coe and London Mayor Boris Johnson; it pumped huge sums of public money into construction industries; it gave work to craftspeople who built and equipped the stadia; it gave commercial and artistic opportunities to media outlets and creative talents; it affected the fortunes of sponsors and other commercial interests involved with the Games; it provided an objective for a generation of young sportsmen and women and for paid staff and volunteers; it provided an event of world-class sport for audiences in the UK and globally, and an almost-unavoidable imposition for those not enamoured of the Games, both logistically and in the blanket media coverage. The achievements of Olympic and Paralympic athletes created sports heroes and heroines, affected London's sporting and business reputation, and translated into levels of future funding for sport in the UK. [6]

3.3 While this summary elucidates the breadth of affect in the London Olympics, there is a more detailed story to be told about the affects that invested the Olympics and Paralympics, and how these produced, and continue to produce the phenomena that are of sociological interest. The Olympic assemblage incorporated millions of people touched by the Olympics, in the UK and around the world, whether as competitors, spectators, media, TV audiences, politicians, builders and so on. The affective flow that drew them in differed in every case, and this flow continues as memories or memorabilia (including Olympic medals) contribute to the assemblage.

3.4 It is in the context of such disparate Olympic-assemblages that focus can turn to emotions in the Olympic flow of affect, and I shall do this through some reflections on my own part in the assemblage, as a TV spectator and during a couple of days attending Paralympic athletics. Though not much interested in sport, my visit fulfilled a life-long desire to one day watch live Olympic athletics. Walking to the Olympic Park on a warm September day, I enjoyed the novelty of a sporting occasion, was slightly overawed by the extensiveness and architectural beauty of the Park and stadia; felt light-headed gazing up at the vertiginous Orbit tower; was impressed and delighted by the landscaping and green planting; and appreciated the positive atmosphere that seemed to invest the event and those attending. Inside the main stadium, I cheered the athletes as they passed by on the track, celebrated the victories and medal ceremonies, was too reserved to participate in a Mexican Wave, and generally enjoyed the experience of being part of London 2012. Later I ambled round the Park, checking out the different venues and areas, having a very good time. My experience no doubt replicated that of many who attended the Olympics and Paralympics.

3.5 Sociologically, some examples can illustrate how emotions contribute to the unfolding thread of events. For example, as I watched Paralympian David Weir come to the starting line of the 1500 metres race, many physical, social, economic and political affects produced (and constrained) his capacity to impel his wheelchair to victory. But while I and many others in the crowd cheered for no reason other than a shared country of origin; these cheers perhaps affected the athlete too, giving an edge over his rivals; his victory produced media adulation and a cult following. His fourth gold, in the marathon, guaranteed a high profile at the closing ceremony; his successes were fκted in his home town with post-boxes painted gold; he was awarded a CBE in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to athletics; while his prowess may have contributed to changes in public attitudes to disabled people since the Paralympics and future funding of Paralympic athletics.

3.6 Or consider Danny Boyle's Last-Night-of-the-Proms-on-acid Olympic opening ceremony, which sentimentalised and romanticised tropes from British history (the industrial revolution, the NHS, the London taxi), drawing upon baby-boomer popular culture and even the Queen to weave an emotive vision of a progressive, successful and vibrant UK that was the capital of the world (as Boris Johnson declared), for a few weeks at least. The multiplicity of emotions engendered by the ceremony established a 'can-do' mood for the Games that followed, and coalesced an assemblage of a post-imperial, inclusive and self-confident society that supplies future affects for both collectivist and libertarian politics.

3.7 Finally, TV and news outlets mediated a roller-coaster flow of emotions (from pride and delight to sadness and despair), including an agonisingly-slow start to UK Olympic achievement, 'gold rushes' of multiple victories, expected and unexpected successes and failures of athletes at both Olympics and Paralympics, tales of overcoming physical or social disadvantage, and celebration of the 'Games-making' Olympic volunteers. These emotional affects assembled with concrete and glass, muscles and machinery, money and politics to produce the material manifestation of London 2012.

3.8 Within the Olympic flow, there were of course other 'negative' flows that also contributed to the assemblage, such as the fear of a terrorist attack on London during the Games and consequent draconian and militarised security measures, or the impact that business sentiment around the re-development of Stratford has had on local rents and the future physical and cultural shape of the community. But I would argue that the sociological significance of all of these positive or negative examples lies not in whether the Games made us laugh or cry, but in discerning the affective (and emotional) elements that contributed to on-going topographical, social, economic, political and sporting transformation, from before the Games began and into the future. The London 2012 'legacy' is itself a continuing Olympic-assemblage, within which physical, biological and social affects mingle with emotion affects, as the venues are assimilated into the social, economic and sporting life of the capital, as the political and economic winners and losers become clearer, and as future generations of athletes succeed and fail in their sports and future Olympics.


4.1 My aim has been to outline an affective sociology of London 2012, and locate the emotions associated with the Games within a broader flow of affectivity, in which they played an important but not central role, alongside other physical, economic, social and cognitive affects. However, my analysis also ascribes renewed significance to emotions as constitutive of the flow of affect that has produced the Games and continues to affect their legacy.

4.2 An affective sociology enables emotions to be seen not simply as a physiological consequence of human embodiment, or as marginal in a world where instrumentality, science and rationalism are hegemonic, but as affects, at least in part, constitutive of the social world and human history. Joy and sadness do not merely affect how people feel, but alongside argument, law, ideology, social organisation, rights, and physical coercion flow together in the Olympic (or any other) assemblage to produce capacities in bodies, identities and subjectivities, collectivities and even entire nations. These in turn affect other elements rhizomically, producing the social world and human history. By focusing on affective flows, it is possible to recognise the part that these different modalities, including emotions, perform. It also permits diachronic analysis of social formations such as the Olympics, documenting affects and the physical, social, economic and emotional capacities they engender, which together produce the unfolding flow of physical and social life into the future.


1Social approaches see emotions as 'embodied sensations' (Lupton: 1998: 3) linked in some way to social and cultural processes. While debate over the precise character of this connection is contested between interactionist, social constructionist, phenomenological and psychoanalytic accounts (Belli et al. 2010: 251), this paper side-steps this issue by focusing not upon what emotions are, but what they do.

2 As a reviewer of this paper pointed out, London 2012 has also engendered negative emotions, including disgust at the costs, nationalism, militarisation of public spaces, aggressive branding and protection of trademarks, and the questionable legacy for sport and East London.

3 In this perspective, affect takes the place normally accorded in sociological theory to agency, but focusing on process and change rather than causality Deleuze (1988: 101). The capacity to affect is not limited to humans, but extends to things, ideas and social formations.

4 Assemblages emerge and dissipate as elements within them affect and are affected, in a 'chaotic network of habitual and non-habitual connections, always in flux, always reassembling in different ways' (Potts 2004: 19).

5 Affective flows within assemblages are not linear, but 'rhizomic' (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 8–9): branching, reversing flows, coalescing and rupturing.

6 'Cash for medals': the equation of medal success in 2012 with future economic investment in Olympic sports, and 'honours for medals', which produced some anomalous rewards for Olympians and Paralympians, were both announced as I wrote this paper. The positive or negative impact of these transformations is examined in other contributions to this special issue.


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