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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Mexican Wave secrets revealed
So now we know: it takes about 30 people to get a Mexican Wave going in a football stadium.

Scientists from the University of Budapest in Hungary studied video tape of the crowd phenomenon that caught on during the 1986 World Cup and built a mathematical model to describe how it works.

Tamas Vicsek and colleagues discovered that a critical mass of people is required to get the wave underway and predict that waves are more likely to occur when spectators are not already over-excited - such as during flat periods in the game.

The team believes similar studies on crowd behaviour could help the authorities predict when spectators are about to lose control, such as during riots or post-match brawls.

The Mexican Wave - or "ola" - spreads around the stadium when large sections of the crowd, in turn, jump to their feet, throw their arms in the air and then sit down. The effect is a huge swirling motion that sweeps around the ground.

Clockwise direction

In their study of the waves, Vicsek and his team borrowed and adapted mathematical models that are already used to map forest fires and the beating heart.

Fourteen Mexican Waves in stadiums containing at least 50,000 people were examined.

It was found that between 25 and 35 people were needed to get the wave going.

"It is generated by no more than a few dozen people standing up simultaneously and subsequently expands through the entire crowd as it acquires a stable, near-linear shape," the team writes in the journal Nature.

The research also found that the wave usually rolls in a clockwise direction around the stadium and typically moves at a speed of about 12 metres (or 20 seats) per second. It also has an average width of about six to 12 metres (or 15 seats).

See also:

06 Apr 99 | Science/Nature
26 Jul 00 | Science/Nature
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