Drivers in Sweden have to watch out for moose but, in the Bahamas, they once had to watch out for triple jumpers. A fad developed where enthusiasts would hop, step and jump from one back yard to another, often across a busy road. It is difficult to interpret these trends – they seem as crazily unpredictable as a moose stepping in front of a car.
As with California in 1849, the Bahamian jumping rush might not have been entirely rational but it did produce precious metal. The country’s tradition in the event would unearth Frank Rutherford and Leevan Sands (above), both Olympic bronze medallists.
Role models play a part – Bjorn Borg provoked a huge growth in tennis in Sweden, as did Martina Navratilova in Czechoslovakia – but there must also be random factors at play. Ilie Nastase and Maria Bueno inspired Romania and Brazil but were much less imitated.
It is like trying to explain the popularity of colouring books for adults, or why a picture of an ambiguous dress went viral last year. There is a kaleidoscope of reasons, some which are clearly visible and keep coming into view, others which are harder to make out, and a few which can barely be seen at all. A complete answer will never reveal its true colours.
Even if key individuals can be identified, their actions may not be straightforward – the dress went viral in part because it was retweeted by Kim Kardashian. And her behaviour is no more capricious than that of Mao Tse Tung, who first embraced table tennis as the Chinese national sport, only to discourage it during the Cultural Revolution, and then to regain a love for the game, in time for Ping Pong Diplomacy with Richard Nixon (above).
Equally significant for the history of table tennis was Ivor Montagu of Great Britain, the president of the ITTF between 1926 and 1967. Before Nixon, China had been shunned by the international sporting world, in favour of the democratic regime on Taiwan, but Montagu’s Marxist leanings led him, uniquely, to prefer the Communist state instead.
Great Men and Chaos Theory
Had Ivor Montagu had different politics, China would not be the ping pong powerhouse that it is today. The “Great Men of History” is increasingly unfashionable as a theory of events but, in sport at least, arbitrary decisions by powerful people can have a profound effect. Although, as with Mao and Nixon, “greatness” is not a measure of moral stature.
Sporting history is chaotic in both the poetic and the mathematical sense. Randomness has many aspects, from the unpredictable spread of fashions to the whimsy of heads of state. The Latvian sliding story includes both, and begins in the late nineteenth century.
Next week: The creation of the sliding sports in Switzerland, and how they got to Latvia