Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cheering for the Home Team

2010 Feb 28_4419 

Most people cheer for the home team, but why is that?

I'm guilty of it. I live in Toronto and so I (casually) cheer for the Blue Jays, the Raptors, the Leafs, Toronto FC and the Toronto Rush (our new undefeated ultimate team). I live in Canada so I cheer for the Canadian Olympic Team, Team Canada, Ryder Hesjedal, Milos Raonic, Steve Nash (and whichever team he plays for), Jacques Villeneuve (and whatever team he drove for), etc. You get the picture.

I have been questioning that rationale recently when I was being criticized for cheering for an athlete instead of a team. I don't have an allegiance to a British football team. For the past decade I was cheering for the team that Michael Owen played on. I followed his career and when he retired last year, I wondered who I would cheer for. The argument was made that I should cheer for a team no matter who plays for it.

I have a problem with that. Why do we need to blindly follow a team even when we don't like the players (or the way they play)? I understand the irony of that question having already stated that I cheer for the Toronto teams. Perhaps my cheering for the Toronto teams is because I don't follow those sports that much so don't know any of the other teams enough to like them.

Of course, there are Torontonians who cheer against Toronto either just to be contrary to the mainstream, who have seen another team enough to prefer them or who want to cheer for winning teams. Is that only a Toronto phenomenon?

Another time that I was questioning blindly following athletes and teams was when I started cheering more passionately for the Blue Jays after Brett Lawrie joined the team. A Canadian playing for a Toronto team was too much to resist. The honeymoon phase lasted for a few months. He was exciting to watch and he was playing well. I started following him on Twitter, but eventually realized that the less I knew the better it was. Is it enough to cheer for someone because they're from our country or playing for our home team?

I thought I was a very patriotic fan. I always cheered for Canada (when they were competing - of course I also cheered for favourites from other countries that I knew). I was at a physio appointment in August 2000 when Daniel Nestor was having a conversation next to me about leaving for the Sydney Olympics the next day. It was exciting to have such a close encounter with an Olympian on the eve of the Games.

When Nestor was scheduled to play against my favourite tennis player at the time who was Australian, I thought I would cheer for both players. Without having a Canadian on the singles tour, I had started following this Australian who had caught my attention a few years before.

At the Olympics however, I found out that my allegiance to my favourite player was stronger than my allegiance to a Canadian player, even one I had a close encounter with. Perhaps I would have felt differently if it had been doubles. I knew that Nestor had no chance to medal in singles (better in doubles) and he beat my favourite who had a better chance to win a medal in singles, in his home country. Nestor would go on to lose his next singles match, but he won the doubles gold medal and I cheered for him and Sebastien Lareau the whole way.

Sports is more fun to watch when we have someone to cheer for. Geography is an easy way to pick a side. Having a connection with someone from your home town or home country gives you something to cheer for. Seeing the red and white on the start line or a chance to hear our national anthem give us a reason to cheer, because sport for most, is more interesting when we have someone to cheer for.

Some sports make it easier to follow and cheer for the other team/country. Sports that are televised a lot gives us the opportunity to get to know athletes and see their skill, so we can appreciate the way a Brit plays golf, a Swiss plays tennis, a Spaniard plays basketball, a Dutchman plays soccer or even the style of play of a basketball team or soccer team. Some sports that are more artistic make it easier to appreciate a Chinese diver, an American gymnast, a Russian figure skater or an Australian freestyle skier. The appreciation for dominance in a sport can get us to cheer for a Jamaican runner, an American swimmer or snowboarder, a Norwegian alpine skier or British triathlete brothers.

It's also easy to cheer for winners. In 2014 it will be easy to cheer for our speed skaters or our freestyle skiers. We'll closely follow our luge, bobsleigh and skeleton athletes. The mainstream fan will not necessarily be cheering the amazing top 20's, top 10's or top 5's in sports that are dominated by Scandinavian or European countries. That 10th place could be as incredible a feat as a gold medal in another sport, but medal counts is (rightly or wrongly) more important than personal bests.

Another reason to cheer for the home team is that it's a lot easier to go see the local teams play live. In order to see the Dallas Mavericks or the Phoenix Suns play (when I was cheering for Steve Nash), I had the choice of one or two dates a year - and those games were often sold out. I wasn't alone in cheering for Steve Nash. There are dozens of home games to attend when you cheer for the home team.

Lately though, with technology adding to the photo of the athlete or to the athletic performance, athletes' personalities are coming through for good and bad.

I try to follow as many Canadian athletes on Twitter and their blogs. We know a lot more about athletes now than we ever had. For some though, this has not been a good thing. Even after having cheered for Michael Owen for a decade, I stopped following him on Twitter for a while because he would get into arguments with people who criticized him (like Piers Morgan). I stopped following Brett Lawrie and even stopped following some Olympians.

Just because someone is a great athlete doesn't mean that they are great writers, public speakers or social media sharers. Just because we come from the same country doesn't mean we share the same sense of humour or same interests.

For most athletes though, the more I find out about them, the more I like them and want to see them succeed.

When we don't know anything about athletes, like was often the case at the beginning of the Olympics, it's easy to cheer for the home team. Hopefully with Olympic athletes getting more media attention now than they did a decade ago, we will be cheering for the Canadian athletes because we know their story, we have experienced their struggles and their successes, and have found a deeper connection to cheer for.

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