The wave (known as a Mexican wave in the English-speaking world outside North America) is an example of metachronal rhythm achieved in a packed stadium when successive groups of spectators briefly stand, yell, and raise their arms. Immediately upon stretching to full height, the spectator returns to the usual seated position.
The result is a wave of standing spectators that travels through the crowd, even though individual spectators never move away from their seats. In many large arenas the crowd is seated in a contiguous circuit all the way around the sport field, and so the wave is able to travel continuously around the arena; in discontiguous seating arrangements, the wave can instead reflect back and forth through the crowd. When the gap in seating is narrow, the wave can sometimes pass through it. Usually only one wave crest will be present at any given time in an arena, although simultaneous, counter-rotating waves have been produced.
Origins and variations
While there is general disagreement about the precise origin of the wave, most stories of the phenomenon's origin suggest that the wave first started appearing at North American sporting events during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Krazy George Henderson perfected the wave at National Hockey League games, followed later by the earliest available video documentation of a wave, which he led on October 15, 1981, at a Major League Baseball game in Oakland, California. This wave was broadcast on TV, and George has used a videotape of the event to bolster his claim as the inventor of the wave. On October 31, 1981, a wave was created at a UW football game against Stanford at Husky Stadium in Seattle, and the cheer continued to appear during the rest of that year's football season. Although the people who created the first wave in Seattle have acknowledged Krazy George's wave at a baseball stadium, they claimed to have popularized the phenomenon.
Krazy George believes that the wave originally was inspired by accident when he was leading cheers at an Edmonton Oilers National Hockey League game at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His routine was to have one side of the arena jump and cheer, then have the opposite side respond. One night in late 1980, there was a delayed response from one section of fans, leading to them jumping to their feet a few seconds later than the section beside them. The next section of fans followed suit, and the first wave circled Northlands Coliseum of its own accord. In The Game of Our Lives, a 1981 book about the Oilers' 1980-81 season, journalist Peter Gzowski described this routine, which did not yet have a name but was already a standard in Krazy George's repertoire: "He will start a cheer in one corner and then roll it around the arena, with each section rising from its seat as it yells."
University of Washington
Robb Weller, a cheerleader at the University of Washington from 1968 to 1972 and later Entertainment Tonight co-host, indicated in September 1984 that the school's early 1970s cheerleading squad developed a version of the wave that went from the bottom to top, instead of side to side, as a result of difficulties in getting the generally inebriated college audience members to timely raise and lower cards:
Actually ...there were two Waves. I was a cheerleader at the University of Washington from 1968 to 1972 when we started the first Wave. We tried to have card tricks but the kids would imbibe too much and the card tricks would get all goofed up; then we'd try card tricks with the kids using their bodies as cards and that wouldn't work. Finally we tried a Wave in the student section and it caught on but that Wave was different from this Wave. It would go from the bottom to top instead of side to side.
The first wave at the University of Washington's Husky Stadium occurred on Halloween 1981, at the prompting of Dave Hunter (Husky band trumpet player) and the visiting alumni cheerleader Weller.
University of Michigan
In the early fall of 1983, according to one Michigan student, Andrew Shotland's account, the wave was started at Michigan, independent of the University of Washington wave and began as a drunken competition between two sections of fans trying to out-yell each other. A letter to the sports editor of The New York Times claimed, "There are three reasons why the wave caught on at Michigan Wolverine games: It gave the fans something to do when the team was leading its opponent by 40 points, it was thrilling and exciting to see 105,000 people in the stands moving and cheering, and Bo Schembechler asked us not to do it." The fans responded to his request by doing more waves, including "Silent Waves" (standing and waving arms without cheering), "Shsh Waves" (replacing the cheering with a "shshing" sound), the "Fast Wave", the "Slow Wave", and two simultaneous waves traveling in opposite directions. The following spring, fans who had enjoyed the wave in Ann Arbor introduced it to the nearby Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The Tigers won baseball's World Series that year and appeared on many televised games throughout 1984, so people all over the US saw it.
1984 Olympic football final
1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico
The 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico was broadcast to a global audience, and the wave was popularized worldwide after featuring during the tournament. The finals in Mexico was the first time that most people living outside North America had seen the phenomenon. As a result, English speakers outside of North America call the phenomenon a "Mexican wave". In Germany, Italy, and other countries the wave is called "la ola" (or simply ola) from the Spanish word for "wave", while in Portuguese-speaking countries, such as Brazil, it is alternatively translated to a onda, more commonly [o] ondão (augmentative) or simply onda, but a ola is also used.
Today, the wave is often seen during FIFA World Cup events when the spectators want to show appreciation for the match or during a lull in the action on the sports field to amuse themselves. There is some controversy as to when the wave is appropriate to perform during a sporting event. Many fans feel that the wave should not be performed in important situations during the game.
Prior to the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground between 2002 and 2006, spectators seated in the Members' Stand (reserved for members of the Melbourne Cricket Club) would not participate in a Mexican wave, and would be booed by other spectators at the ground, before the wave would resume on the other side of the stand. Sociologist John Carroll described the practice of "booing the Members" as dismissive of any claim to authority or superior social status on the members' part, although good-natured and based on the egalitarian nature of watching sports. (As a postscript to the "booing the Members" phenomenon, even when the Members stand was closed due to the reconstruction work, the crowd would still boo, despite the Members' stand being completely empty. When Mexican waves were banned (see below), large sections of the Members participated in the protest waves.) Such a feature is also observed at Lord's, where the Members in the pavilion rarely participate, to the boos of the crowd.
Cricket Australia banned the wave at home games in 2007, citing liquids and other objects being dangerously thrown in the air during the wave. The move was met with incredulity by the rest of the cricketing world and the ban only served to increase the prevalence of the wave at those games, including in one game when Adam Gilchrist, the Australian wicketkeeper participated in the banned wave from the playing field. The ban continues to be intermittently imposed and lifted by Cricket Australia and Australian police.
In 2002, Tamás Vicsek of the Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary along with his colleagues analyzed videos of 14 waves at large Mexican football stadiums, developing a standard model of wave behavior (published in Nature). He found that it takes only the actions of a few dozen fans to trigger a wave. Once started, it usually rolls in a clockwise direction at a rate of about 12 m/s (40 ft/s), or about 22 seats per second. At any given time the wave is about 15 seats wide. These observations appear to be applicable across different cultures and sports, though details vary in individual cases.
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Media related to The wave at Wikimedia Commons