Saturday, September 28, 2013

A mild form of hysteria

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 25.)
At the time of writing this (Sunday), I have no idea how the America’s Cup will play out. But it doesn’t really matter, because this column is more concerned with the America’s Cup as a sociological phenomenon.
A different New Zealand has been on display over the past couple of weeks. We like to think of ourselves as phlegmatic people, slow to register emotion. There is no better example of this than New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, whose composure and measured understatement has been one of the most striking aspects of the entire contest.

In contrast, the national mood over the past few days has resembled a mild form of hysteria.
Encouraged by incessant, chest-thumping media hype, we quickly get carried away by the prospect of international sporting triumph. Nothing causes us to shed our inhibitions – or our modesty – faster.

But events like the America’s Cup also serve as a kind of social glue. I think of it as the spirit of Telethon. Just as in the 1970s the entire nation coalesced around the novelty of 24-hour television charity fundraisers, so an event like the America’s Cup pulls us all together. For a brief period we put aside the things that normally divide us and focus on a common cause.
This is very much a New Zealand thing, and it’s probably due to our size. We are small enough to feel connected.

One of the most intriguing aspects has been the way people felt the urge to indulge in communal bonding. Rather than watch in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, thousands chose to gather in clubs and public venues, often sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers. I can only guess this has something to do with feelings of excitement being heightened (and perhaps with disappointment being easier to take) when it’s shared.
None of this was orchestrated. In fact interest in the event built slowly.

I began watching at the time of the Louis Vuitton series, when it seemed not many people were paying much attention. I wouldn’t have bothered myself, except that an Italian-American friend in San Francisco (a keen supporter of Team New Zealand) began sending me YouTube links that captured my interest.
At that stage it wasn’t the prospect of a New Zealand victory that pulled me in so much as the sheer spectacle. Even when the New Zealand boat was racing by itself, its speed and agility was enthralling. This was sailing as it had never been seen before.

As Emirates Team NZ dispensed with the hapless Luna Rossa team and attention turned to Oracle, the media began to sit up and take notice. And when the New Zealanders won the first few races against Larry Ellison’s defenders, the momentum became irresistible.
Suddenly the TV and radio networks, sensing a big story in the making, were frantically dispatching their star reporters to San Francisco. We love our own myths, and there is none more irresistible than the one in which, by sheer grit and No 8 wire resourcefulness, we take on the world.

Even cynics who sneered at sailing as a rich man’s sport found themselves being sucked in. Doubtless the prospect of New Zealand giving the unpopular software billionaire Ellison a bloody nose helped overcome their ideological qualms.
We’ve been here before, of course. When the All Whites qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1982, people with no prior interest in football suddenly became ardent enthusiasts. Work would cease when our underdog players took the field.

The same thing happened in 2010, when we took huge pride in the fact that New Zealand was the only team not to lose a game (something the critics unkindly pointed out wasn’t necessarily hard to do if you played a strictly defensive style of football).
In 1987, the hit song Sailing Away helped whip up a fever of patriotic enthusiasm when a young Chris Dickson skippered KZ7 in our first America’s Cup campaign off Fremantle. In 1995, red socks became the symbol of the nation’s passionate support for the ultimately successful Cup challenge led by Peter Blake, with Russell Coutts as helmsman.

There is an almost childlike delight in the way New Zealanders rise to such occasions. Sociologists and psychologists no doubt have their explanations, but I suspect it has a lot to do with our being a small, young country that’s over-anxious to prove itself.
We’re on the edge of the world and we don’t have much weight to throw around. So it feels good to be noticed, even if we sometimes over-estimate the amount of world attention we’re attracting.

Being a small, intimate society also means it’s relatively simple to galvanise the entire populace behind a campaign – a point cleverly exploited by the promoters of the 2011 Rugby World Cup with their “stadium of 4 million” theme.
But while there’s almost a na├»ve innocence in the way New Zealand gets behind its sporting heroes at such times, this aspect of the national character has its less attractive facets too.

One is a tendency to pump ourselves up – never a good look. Not only do a few early successes lead us too quickly to a position of irrational optimism, thus setting ourselves up for bitter disappointment in the event of failure, but we also tend to take collective credit for something in which we have played no part.
Listening to talkback radio and watching fans being interviewed on the TV news, you couldn’t help but notice how the pronoun “they” – in reference to the New Zealand crew – morphed into “we”, as if the entire population was out there out on the water.

I think of this as the Little Red Hen syndrome. Few people took much interest in the America’s Cup bid in its early stages; in fact the government’s decision to back Team NZ with more than $30 million of taxpayers’ money was widely attacked. But once the team tasted success, we were all eager to be associated with it.
Elements of the media haven’t helped, some journalists and broadcasters abandoning all semblance of detachment as they assumed the role of cheerleaders. As Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme pointed out, their braying jingoism stood in stark contrast to the humility and graciousness of the sailors themselves.


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