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Sports fans and their heroes in the wired age

April 27th, 2011

A quick plug for an essay of mine that appeared in Maisonneuve a few months ago (the full text has just been made freely available online), about the changing relationship between sports fans and athletes in the wired age. It’s a long piece that mixes some personal history with sociology and (inevitably, as a runner!) some discussion of the Letsrun message boards:

A CBC video clip of the 1996 Canadian Olympic Track and Field Trials recently surfaced online. You can watch, in grainy low definition, the twelve finalists in the men’s 1,500 metres step to the line under starter’s orders. A momentary pause, as the runners crouch in anticipation—then the gun fires. Eleven runners explode down the track. The twelfth, inexplicably, stays frozen on the starting line for a brief instant, then snaps out of it and takes off after his competitors. He never quite catches up, and finishes last.

A surprising number of people have stumbled on this clip and emailed it to me, along with some variation of the question, “What the hell happened there?”… [READ ON]

  1. Marc
    April 27th, 2011 at 16:36 | #1

    Great piece, Alex.

  2. Phil Koop
    April 27th, 2011 at 17:04 | #2

    As usual, I am going to add my cycling-related angle.

    In Belgium, it is common for racers – even foreigners who have taken up residence – to be supported by a club of local citizens, usually organized around a bar or cafe. This begins in the demi-world of the lowest pro ranks, with guys who are competing in local kermesses and crits, and even with promising amateurs – part of the point is to follow the rider as he moves up through higher levels of competition. The supporters have a personal connection with the racers; they not only watch them during races, they feel free to offer comments and criticism afterward – in person, not on a message board.

    Superstars like Boonen outgrow this system (Boonen moved to Monaco to escape his fans.) But most riders spend their entire career supported by the same club, even those who reach the top level of pro competition. So when Johan Van Summeran (a guy not quite good enough to be his team’s primary rider but a fearsome rider in support) unexpectedly won this year’s Paris-Roubaix, a trip back to the cafe of his supporters to display the trophy cobblestone was a social obligation: http://www.sporza.be/cm/sporza/videozone/MG_sportnieuws/MG_wielrennen/1.1001237. (To win Paris-Roubaix is a little piece of eternal glory, like winning the men’s 100m Olympic gold.)

    You can see that it wasn’t a simple trip back to the home pub, as he was accompanied by hordes of journalists and cameras. But he still had to go through the motions; it was expected of him, not only by his fan club but by society generally (which was why the coverage was on hand.)

  3. RH
    April 28th, 2011 at 15:17 | #3

    @Phil Koop

    Somehow I can read the obligation part from his face.

  4. alex
    May 6th, 2011 at 17:32 | #4

    Thanks for the comments, guys. That’s really cool about the Belgian local club system, and a neat video (though I wish my Flemish was a little stronger!). I do like the idea of having avenues for communication between fans and athletes, whether in the pub or online — though of course there are always some who will eventually get too big for any reasonable interaction, like Boonen. The nice thing about the pub, I guess, is that a smaller proportion of fans would be real jerks in person than online!

  5. catherine
    May 8th, 2011 at 11:48 | #5

    @RH
    you are assuming it is ‘obligation’ on his face, it is the day after Paris-Roubaix, perhaps just exhaustion!? Well done Johan, another job well done!

  6. RH
    May 8th, 2011 at 15:45 | #6

    @catherine

    You’re abolutely right. He sais in the interview that at 3.00 in the morning “the lights went out”.

    Tired and a sore butt from the cobblestones.

  1. April 28th, 2011 at 10:04 | #1