Superstition in Sports: Paul the Octopus

Whatever you make of it, decry it or uphold it, superstition has been a potent phenomenon for a long time. It’s a belief in something to the point of it affecting your thinking and your life decisions. Money, Power and Religion have always been the strongholds of Superstition. In the contemporary world, there is no better marriage of fame and fortune than sports. Where the stakes are so high, superstition will follow. Superstition in sports can be both uplifting and debilitating. Going through a particular process or ritual before a big game might help a player get into the zone and tune up his form. Sachin Tendulkar, the best cricketer in the world also has a few of these up his sleeve. While suiting up for batting, he always puts on the left thigh pad first. When he was captain, he would continue to be in full playing gear even after getting out.

Whether it is listening to music before a game (Michael Clarke), carrying a handkerchief (Steve Waugh), kissing the bat or ball (Mahila Jayawardane) or a lucky photo (Saurav Ganguly), idiosyncrasies are alive and rampant in the cricketing arena. The psychology behind superstitions depends on two factors: habit and success. In the case of habit, a player has a particular ritual, say of kissing the bat before a match. This in itself would have started, not as a superstition, but an affirmation of his love for the sport. Then he goes on to play a good knock and the ritual becomes a habit. It then enters the player’s mind that his success has something to do with the habit, which then turns into superstition. Kissing the bat is not merely an endearing quirk, but a coping mechanism.

The second factor that affects superstition is success. It’s well known that Virender Sehwag does not cheer for the Indian team because he believes it is detrimental to the team’s performance. In this case, a co-incidental occurrence is given a whole new power and meaning.

At times, the team is not in form, and no amount of cheering or lack thereof can make it play better. There is a fine line between healthy belief and fanatic superstition. It is when people go out of their way to behave unnaturally that superstition takes an unhealthy toll.

A shining example of the whole Myth versus Belief argument (based on neither human nor divine intervention) is the World Cup’s unofficial mascot, Paul the Oracle Octopus. The Chronicles of Paul have garnered worldwide attention and the little mollusk has become a house hold name for his 100% accurate predictions about the 2010 World Cup results. Hatched in 2008 in England’s Sea Life Centre, Paul was transferred to the sister aquarium in Germany. He received most press for predicting the semi-final results between Germany and Spain in favour of the latter. What followed were death threats and accusations of betrayal from German newspapers and people alike. It seemed the World had forgotten that Paul, for all his soothsaying capabilities, was just a dumb animal.

This whole ‘Psychic Animal’ phenomenon raises interesting questions about sports and psychology. One must factor in his predictions as a psychological tool for subsequent wins. Surely the team ‘destined’ to win or lose were affected in some way before the actual match. The Spanish, apart from inherent ability, had Paul in their corner; which gave them an edge in terms of visualization and confidence.

Then there is the commercial aspect of Paul’s predictions, baffling people and bookies alike. What makes Paul unique is that several other ‘animal oracles’ have been less than successful in the World Cup. There is simple science behind this. Professors at the University of Bath and Cambridge say that Paul’s run of luck is comparable to tossing a coin. By the laws of probability, Paul had 1/2 chance of predicting the correct result for one match and a 1/256 chance of eight correct results in a row. Thus, it’s unremarkable that one animal amongst many has been successful.

Paul loyalists do not take offence, but I for one am glad that he is going into retirement. There is just no fun in watching a match when the focus is not on the game, but the predictions of an eight-limbed sea creature. And it results in pointless arguments with friends. The subtleties of football and individual player performance are not given enough coverage with the ubiquitous Paul gracing the front page of major dailies. According to a BBC news report, Paul’s owners have stated that there will be no more predictions for him. He will go back to his earlier job of entertaining children.

The octopus will probably die before 2012 according to his average life span. Till then, his slide into obscurity will probably be cushioned by Five Star treatment from the Sea Life Centre in Germany.

Akanksha Sharma

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