Mar 182010

The Mexican Wave is one of Mexico’s best-known contributions to world culture and sports. Amazingly, studies of the Mexican wave may also suggest how to control unruly mobs.

Defined as “a rippling wave effect that passes right around a stadium full of spectators, achieved when all the spectators in turn stand up with their arms raised and then sit down again with their arms lowered” (Chambers 21st Century Dictionary), the Mexican wave or La Ola is a cooperative, coordinated and spectacular sight that gained popularity after the 1986 World Cup fútbol (soccer) competition held in Mexico.

The historical origins of this seemingly spontaneous social ritual are disputed, but it certainly predates the 1986 World Cup and was originally called either the “human wave”, or simply “the wave”, rather than the Mexican wave. Numerous independent claims have been made as to who was the first to orchestrate it. The rival claims include those of the fans of Seattle Mariners baseball team; the “yell-leader” Rob Weller and marching band director Bill Bissell of the University of Washington’s “Huskies” American football team, and “Krazy” George Henderson at an Oakland versus New York baseball game.

Whatever the truth, the wave was certainly widely practised in the early 1980s by American football crowds. Mexicans reading this post may prefer to accept the (as yet unsubstantiated) version claimed by one Alan López, in a contribution to the UK Guardian’s forum on ” When and where did the first Mexican wave start?” López attributes the first wave to fans watching a local derby soccer match between Monterrey and Tigres in the city of Monterrey, Mexico, in the 1970s.

The wave’s rise to prominence on the world stage came during the World Cup finals in 1986, when it was regularly performed in Mexico City’s main stadium, the Azteca (where yours “soccer-mad” truly was lucky enough to be a willing participant on several occasions!) and where, of course, it received extensive television coverage. The persuasive power of television is well known and the term Mexican wave soon entered the vernacular vocabulary, an end-of-the-twentieth-century phenomenon that has transformed how spectators react in sports stadiums around the globe.

The historical origins of the Mexican wave may be disputed but the origin of each individual “wave event” is now much better understood as a result of some pioneering mathematical modeling performed by a team of two biological physicists from Hungary together with an economics and traffic researcher from Germany. The webpage Mexican waves in an excitable medium includes a video clip and animated graphic showing a typical Mexican wave. It also features fascinating interactive graphics to show how various mathematical variables affect the probability, form, and speed of travel of Mexican waves in a hypothetical sports stadium.

In physics terminology, the Mexican wave is an example of a transverse wave: the spectators move only vertically (standing up and then sitting down again) but the wave travels horizontally around the stadium. Researchers studied video footage of 14 wave events and built a mathematical model that mimics their development and subsequent movement, similar to the models used for predicting the movements of heart tissue or a forest fire.

They found that three out of every four waves travel clockwise around the stadium (partly because the majority of people are right-handed) and that they typically move about 12 meters (20 seats) per second. Interestingly, it requires only 30 or so fans standing up simultaneously to start the ripple effect leading to a fully fledged wave. The success of their computer models means that future studies may lead to methods of predicting how unrest will spread in an excited crowd and precisely how security personnel can best keep tense situations under control.

So, we now know that you only need a small core group of die-hard fans to start a wave.

And the records for longest wave and largest wave? Assuming that it’s acceptable for Mexican waves to occur outside the confines of a sports stadium (a debatable proposition), both records are probably held by the more than 250,000 spectators who lined the 40-kilometer-long (25-mile-long) route through the streets of Mexico City that was traveled by Pope John Paul II when he visited the city in July 2002.  It is only fitting that Mexicans retain full control of the records related to the Mexican wave!

The term Mexican wave has been used for many other things besides the crowd behavior phenomenon described in this post. For example, it has been used by molecular enzymologists to describe the characteristic motion in a “Model for ssDNA translocation” (whatever that is!) and for a kind of acrylic yarn, manufactured in several variegated patterns, that can be machine washed, laid flat to dry, and is considered excellent value for money! In addition, while it lasted, Mexican Wave was the UK’s leading website about Mexico.

Finally, if you want to do the Mexican wave and don’t have any willing co-participants, then try some fancy facial gymnastics, by following the instructions on  ” How to do an eyebrow Mexican wave”? on a BBC website!

Whenever, wherever and however you next participate in a Mexican wave… have fun!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect – Click here for the original article

Mexico’s innumerable links (economic, social, demographic and cultural) to the world are relevant to many chapters of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.


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