Sports Smell


by Caroline Hannum

Bags are scattered everywhere. Sports bras and Advil packets poke out alongside last practice’s shirt that really should have been washed. Lockers are thrown open and it’s clear that whatever semblance of organization could have been mustered was reserved only for the game about to happen in a half hour.

There’s the sound of the paper ripping under the plastic coating. Sometimes, depending on the level of urgency or intent, it could be clean and neat and placed perfectly on the already puckered or puckering skin. The smell of synthetic rubber and sterilized gauze can fill a room. Or, at least find their way to nostrils that were forced to hover over the injury site.

Band-aids, a thick precautionary layer of moleskin. Dad bought you these specifically because he used them when he played. They were dense enough to keep a blister from popping up. Back then, cleats were weighted from the metal spikes that were still legal to play with. This was the 80’s: different rules, but similar smell. There may not be metal spikes under your foot or the blown out hair and mustaches that you’ve seen in photos from old yearbooks but there’s still a hint of antiseptic lingering in the air.

A tang of artificial citrus hits the olfactory system and suddenly total recall pops up. The Gatorade Jenna accidentally spilled on the corner of your bag is still there. The yellow one (the best one and don’t even try to argue) comes into the mix and you remember that you have to bring snacks for everyone and Jenna had reminded you yesterday. Cupcakes? No, not before a game. Amanda almost threw up last time, but maybe that had something to do with the combo of concession stand hot dog and chocolate milk.  Apples? No, this is high school not youth league (don’t try so hard oh my gosh). You’ll ask Mom what she thinks.

Now right ahead the field is littered with scattered cones for drills while everyone weaves in and out of them. Fans watch attentively, intimidatingly serious and equally optimistic. That was a fresh application of Old Spice Deodorant by the way, original it seems. You can confidently tell now as coach pulls everyone in closer for the final huddle.

The huddle is new. He’s trying to make everyone feel more like a team than a family, and it’s nice, really. Hopeful, not overly sentimental and the fact of the matter is that no matter how cynical everyone was last season shifting from losing to winning to losing again. You can still see scoreboards with disproportional totals and the look of frustration on the faces of people you’ve known since kindergarten. Each huddle seems to chip away at that feeling.

The whistle blows, the grass moves ever so slightly and suddenly you’re not smelling anything but your own nervousness and the sound of your heart racing. Two hours of desperately inhaling oxygen. Frankly, it’s a miracle there are hairs left in anyone’s nose by the end. While you walk off the field, the ability to smell kicks into high gear, making up for the lost time. Dear God is that vomit? Seems like someone’s trying out a new perfume. The person on the fifth row, third from the left in the center up on the bleachers definitely had an orange for lunch.

Sports smell. Whenever the topic of athletic pursuits comes up, smell allows a moment to be re-lived or experienced for the first time. Scent is there to situate, fixate, and demand reaction. The pungent sweat, the metallic blood, the salty tears. What about the band-aid though? The Gatorade in the corner and the snacks that (in the end) you forgot to buy? The familiarity of Old Spice and its ability to weave its way through a crowd of equally heartbroken and hopeful athletes, coaches, students, growing humans? Sports smell, sometimes in ways no one expected.