La Ola rolls on

The Mexican Wave is formed as people in a crowd watching a sport event, stand up and raise their hands straight up in the air, before folding their hands back and sitting down. When this is done by masses of spectators, an effect of a rolling wave is created.

It is known as “The Mexican Wave” because millions around the world saw it for the first time when crowds rolled wave after wave enthusiastically during the 1986 FIFA World Football Tournament (aka ‘Copa Mundial’) in Mexico.

In addition to the introduction of The Wave, the Mexico Mundial is remembered for being the first ever to be awarded twice to the same country. It will mainly be remembered as world stage for Argentinean genius Diego Armando Maradona, who helped his country win the world cup that year, notably by using “The Hand of God” goal (Mano de Dios) to score a goal during the quarter final match against England.

The Mexico Mundial’s wave Begins with a book by
freelance science writer and Nature consultant editor Philip Ball, who set out to explore the ‘physics of society’ in an award winning book named “Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another” (2004, ) the book moves intriguingly from the analysis of personal choices (such as voting or shopping) to actions that are both determined and expressed though group behaviour. The gist of the matter is that, while individual behaviour cannot be predicted or analysed in exact terms, group behaviour can be observed statistically.

One of the people who definitely belongs to Philip Ball’s network of influence is Tamás Vicsek, Biological Physics professor at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. A few years ago, Vicsek was part of a team who conducted a study called ‘Mexican Wave (La Ola), a quantitative analysis of the propagating human wave.’ (I. Farkas, D. Helbing, T. Vicsek, Mexican waves in an excitable medium. Nature 419, 131-132 (2002, PDF, or website).)

The study sought to find a mathematical model to describe this crowd phenomenon. The researchers examined 14 video footage of Mexican wave involving about 50,000 spectators during the 1986 Copa Mundial, and found, for example, that it takes at 25 – 30 people to start a Mexican wave. They also found that, by and large, the waves rolls in a clockwise direction around the stadium. The speed (velocity?) of the waves was about 12 metres (20 stadium seats) per second. The waves were six to 12 metres (15 seats) wide, in average.

The importance of Mexican waves as critical gougers of crowd attitude became evident when Australian cricket fans reacted vehemently when Cricket Australia chiefs slapped a ban on Mexican waves, early in 2016.

Maybe the most memorable, creatively superior (some say, supreme,) depiction of the Mexican wave appears in Budweiser’s “La-Ola-Wave” advert, roll ’em on!