It's all about innovation

It's all about innovation

Joy in the air: Bryan twins do their famous chest-bump celebration. AP

Remember when a simple smack on the posterior or a high-five was enough? Remember when a chest bump was not a gravity-flouting expression of mutual delight but an act of defiance reserved for fiery baseball managers trying to make their point to uncooperative umpires?

Remember, and now consider some recent sporting fiestas:

In Norway, the Canadians Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw recently turned their skis into air guitars on the podium and gave a mock concert after winning Canada’s first-ever gold in cross-country skiing at the world championships.

In India last October, the Australian runners Joel Milburn, Kevin Moore, Brendan Cole and Sean Wroe celebrated their victory in the 4x400M relay by simulating a cricket match, using the relay baton for a bat.

In Iceland last season, soccer players for Stjarnan Football Club performed a series of elaborate set pieces that made it easy to forget the goals that had just been scored.

Among the more unusual acts was a player stuffing a ball under his jersey and then pretending to give birth as his team-mates helped him deliver.

There was also a Rambo sequence, in which the scorer threw fake punches and fired his finger like a pistol, dropping his team-mates one by one and leaving them slumped, temporarily, on the field. Or the rowboat bit, in which players took a seat on the grass and pulled on imaginary oars in unison. Or the consensus favourite: an angling expedition in which a player was reeled in by a team-mate with a notional rod and then hoisted into a horizontal position by his comrades and presented as if he were a trophy fish to another team-mate pretending to take a photograph.

Perhaps all that volcanic ash in the Icelandic atmosphere last year is part of the explanation, but what is clearer is that the sports celebration continues to evolve, with the exception of sports in which such prescripted tomfoolery has been legislated against (see the National Football League in the United States). 

“People are always pushing forward, because to be dramatic you have to do something a little unexpected,” said David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, a research center in Spokane, Washington.

Gestural novelty, according to Givens, can be particularly hard to keep novel. “Most mammals do some imitations, but primates are the most imitative of all,” Givens said. “It’s the monkey see, monkey do principle, and humans are the most imitative of all primates.

It’s a big, big part of our behavior. There’s been a lot of recent research into mirror neurons in the brain, and the way our brain operates, it’s as if you are actually doing the gesture you see on TV when you see it. It’s as if you project yourself into the act,” he said. “And the next step after the game is when you get a chance to do it yourself.”

This speaks to my personal experience, considering that I recently tried my first chest bump with a tennis partner after an adulthood spent relying on the long-passé high-five.

I didn’t plan it. I can’t recall ever expressing the slightest desire — inwardly or outwardly — to chest bump anything. It just happened (and it wasn’t pretty), and it surely came from watching the Bryan twins celebrate their doubles achievements in something much closer to midair over the past decade or so.

Bob and Mike Bryan, by the way, are imitators, not innovators, too. They copied the chest bump from the Jensen brothers, Murphy and Luke, who were a doubles force in the 1990s, which was the same decade the chest bump became staple celebratory fare in North American team sports.

As early as December 1991, Magic Johnson was chest-bumping his Los Angeles Lakers team-mate Byron Scott after a flashy reverse layup by Scott, and in 1992, the chest bump was one of the signature displays of the Toronto Blue Jays on their way to victory in the World Series.

The leading edge in sports celebration at the moment seems to be occupied by ensemble stagecraft: some of it improvisational like Harvey’s and Kershaw’s air guitar duet in Oslo; some of it deeply — or not so deeply — premeditated, like the Icelanders’ Internet-friendly efforts.

The mind rumbles with possibilities. But perhaps it’s a hint of a backlash to come that the most eloquent celebration of the new year was the one that followed the goal of the new year: Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick against Manchester City last month.  It was a crazy shot that could have brought a crazy response, maybe even a fishing expedition.

But Rooney simply ran toward a corner flag, thrust out his chest and extended his arms, his pugilist’s visage pointed skyward as he braced for his team-mates arrival, no props or scripts required.