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Scientists eye stadium 'wave' dynamics

Math models help solve mystery of 'doing the wave'

BUDAPEST, Hungary (CNN) -- Just about every sports spectator in the world knows how to do the "wave." No matter the sport, no matter the venue, once a wave gets going in a stadium, excited fans get ready. As the wave sweeps from one seating section to the next, fans on cue leap to their feet and raise their arms, then sit immediately as the wave rolls to the next section.

It's fun, it's high energy, but it's not exactly a subject for deep thought. Until now.

 Starting the wave
  • Gained ground with U.S. fans in the early 1980s.
  • Soccer fans in Mexico first embraced it during the 1986 World Cup.
  • The Oakland A's say the wave's first MLB appearance was at their game on October 15, 1981.
  • It usually rolls in a clockwise direction at a rate of about 20 seats per second.

  • Tamas Vicsek of the University of Hungary, along with colleagues, analyzed videos of 14 waves at large Mexican soccer stadiums. Using mathematical models initially developed to study the spread of forest fires and the propagation of electrical impulses in heart tissue, Vicsek's team claims to have scientifically figured out the dynamics of the wave.

    Their analysis indicates that it takes only a few dozen fans leaping to their feet with their arms up to trigger a wave. Once started, it usually rolls in a clockwise direction at a rate of about 40 feet per second, or about 20 seats per second. They say at any given time, it is about 15 seats wide.

    And they say their conclusions apply to the wave across the board -- not only to Mexican fans, or to soccer matches.

    "It is not specific to football (soccer) events," said Vicsek. "I saw it last time three days ago watching the U.S. Open broadcast from Flushing Meadow. It can start at any large sport event where the spectators are sitting in long rows of seats."

    The wave is a global phenomenon. Some call it the Mexican Wave, or "La Ola," since soccer fans initially got into it during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Its exact origin is unclear, but it gained popularity in the United States in the early 1980s. The Oakland Athletics baseball team says the first appearance of the wave at a Major League Baseball game was in Oakland on October 15, 1981.

    The Hungarian team said similar models could be used in the future to study crowd control, to better predict how people react during riots.

    Their research is published in this week's edition of the British journal Nature.




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