The Case For Smell In Sport

It was interesting to discover on Celebrity Master Chef that Simon Katich cooks like he bats: there he was, eyes fixed on the recipe, whisking and fricasseeing away with the same precise, stilted movements employed for his legside flicks and punched drives. His wife should encourage him to make his own pizzas – twirling dough above his head may encourage him to use his shoulders more.  

When batting Katich uses the ball’s speed against itself and so has no interest in fancy flourishes. When the topping of his lemon curd layer cake didn’t set he wasn’t concerned because it was the layers that counted; and he got them just right. 

More interestingly, we also found out he has no sense of smell. Without it he is unable to taste complex flavours.  Usually this would be a liability for a decent cook but apparently, if Matt Preston isn’t around, he uses his wife as a taste tester. 

The role of smell in sport is very underrated. Next to its dominant siblings, sight and hearing , it’s a sense that tends to go unnoticed in the sporting arena. 

Smell is primal. The subconscious fears of all animals are betrayed by the odours they emit. If a powerful adversary catches a whiff you are doomed. It will also give a nervous opponent confidence that they can defeat you.  An animal knows its prey is wounded because it can smell the blood. The expressions “smell blood” and “getting  a sniff” are now sporting ones.

Norman Mailer was big on smells because he personally experienced fearful soldiers and sportsmen emitting “the clammy odour of  funk“. 

So what do the fearless smell of ? Melbourne Storm founder John Ribot couldn’t describe it but knew when he had smelt it : “When you’ve been involved in a number of clubs for a long time you go into the dressing rooms and you can smell them, if they smell right. Our place certainly smelt right”. It is alleged that sportsmen also smell just right to the opposite sex. Mailer’s term for it was rut. 

To be locked into a rugby scrum with all that funk, rut and blood would be almost unbearable. In cricket ,though, opportunities for smelling  your opponent are limited. Ironically the two positions held by sniffless Simon, close-in fieldsman and opening batsman, give you the  best chance. If during the Ashes it had been possible to pick up the smells of  the English bowlers and to identify the fearful thoughts that produced them this is what you would have discovered: Andrew Flintoff (cortisone and Thwaites Original Ale – “Will I be able to walk when I’m 40?!”), Steve Harmison (Farex – “Do they want me to bowl to the batsman or second slip? Ohh, I just want to go home!”), Stuart Broad (oatmeal facial scrub – “Do I really look like a woman!?”) and Graham Onions (onions – “I hope my overbite doesn’t show on the telly!”). 

Of course you don’t have to smell Ian Bell and Owais Shah to know they are nervous. 

So there is a sigificant link between sport and smell but there are forces at work trying to break it.  The stench of mentholated liniment once defined the sports dressing room until it was replaced by ultrasound, massage and stretching. Before big stadiums, smoking bans and ‘mid- strength’ (ie p*ss-weak) beer the smell of the crowd enriched the atmosphere of a game. I remember in the 1980s running down the race (which has also disappeared – football players now run out along a strip of carpet laid in the underground carpark) into the pleasant aroma of Winfield Reds (no low tar Holidays with photos of gangrene on the packet) and full strength beer (OK it was only Fosters but Belgian ale wasn’t around then). You can’t seem to smell the grass any more either. 

It could be said that my enjoyment of sport is reliant on people destroying their liver and the lungs of others. And yes, some of the forces against smell are improved sports medicine, good health and good manners. But remember, smell is also the primary stimulator of memory. Will the insipidly clean air (carbon minoxide notwithstanding) currently hovering over a sporting contest be enough for today’s children to evoke fond memories of the event in later life?

What hasn’t changed is the stench of battle once a sporting contest begins. As a player it’s impossible to ignore. Unless you’re Simon Katich of course.

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