Usually in sport to determine victories and defeats, records or failures, are the sportsmen, the coaches, the teams: the owners and the reserves, the drivers and the mechanics, the captains and the wingmen and, by extension, anyone who collaborates in the preparation of the athletes. and improving their workouts. The fans, sometimes referred to in football as a group that becomes “the twelfth man on the pitch”, generally contribute indirectly and almost always intangible.
However, there are cases in which spectators or simple external collaborators of a sporting event become decisive, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. There are those who argued, for example, that almost twenty years ago the Chicago Cubs did not make it to win the World Series of baseball for fault of a now famous fan of theirs. And there are elements to argue that, just over a month ago in Berlin, without the valuable contribution of those who handed him thirteen water bottles during his run, the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge would not have been able to set a new world record in the marathon.
Kipchoge, the strongest running marathoner and one of the best ever, has set his new record and won most of the marathons he has started for his remarkable merits. The search for marginal gains in every aspect and moment of the race, which first of all passes through his own state-of-the-art shoeshowever, is also part of his collaboration with Claus-Henning Schulke, otherwise known online as “Bottle Claus” and in recent weeks presented as an essential accomplice of Kipchoge’s record.
Schulke is German, fifty-six and working as a construction engineer. As a young man he ran a marathon in two hours and forty-three minutes – a very good time – and then decided to add swimming and cycling to the race so that he could dedicate himself to triathlon. From the end of the nineties Schulke began to collaborate as a volunteer in the Berlin marathon, one of the most important and fastest in the world, as an official passer of water bottles.
Not all marathons have this role (elsewhere the water bottles are on the tables and marathon runners have to take them on their own), but over the years a team of about thirty people has been built in Berlin, of which Schulke is now the leader, who prepares and passes water bottles for female and male athletes. Since the best marathoners run at twenty kilometers per hour, it is not easy to prepare and coordinate with them for the delivery: it takes practice, shrewdness and a glance. If a bottle falls or is missed, whoever had to receive it must stop and pick it up, wasting time, or do without it with the risk of finding himself without the necessary energy for a good performance.
Since 2017, Schulke has been Kipchoge’s personal bottle supplier when Kipchoge runs to Berlin. The two met because Schulke was assigned to the Kenyan (in a year in which he won but the rain prevented him from making a record) and the following year Kipchoge expressly asked that he still pass the bottles to him.
Before that race, the two met and discussed passing tactics and techniques. Everything went well, Kipchoge set her first world record and in the evening she wrote to Schulke: “Thanks for today’s help, my record today would not exist without her.”
The couple worked very well this year too, and Schulke stood out even more than in the past, not only for effectiveness, but also for conviction and determination. He was also appreciated for his brief but convinced cheers after each pass, before getting back on his bike to overtake Kipchoge and, pedaling at a speed close to forty kilometers per hour, being ready for the next pass.
It has been calculated that, each of the passages, all successful, allowed Kipchoge to save money a couple of seconds. In all, the savings are around thirty seconds, those thanks to which Kipchoge set a new record.
The correct passage of the water bottles is often essential also in cycling, where the cyclists pass much faster and where the team assistants take care of the supplies. Careful planning on where to give the bottles is, among other things, the basis of one of the most notable cycling achievements of recent years, the one that allowed the British Chris Froome to win the Giro d’Italia in 2018.
But examples of decisive “external collaborators” do not concern only the water bottles and not only the sports of fatigue and endurance. In football, for example, it often happens that ball boys (assistants, often young players on the home team, who retrieve balls and pass them to players who have to put them back into play) affect the game, deliberately slowing down or accelerating the throw-in. in the game of the ball. With consequent criticism, or praise, from the coaches of the teams in question.
About fifteen years ago they talked about it, in Italy, in relation to the quick corners taken by Roma. Another recent and rather emblematic case involved a Champions League match that in 2019 Tottenham won in a comeback 4-2 against Olympiacos. The 2-2 goal was scored thanks to quick action and by virtue of a sort of surprise effect resulting from how the young ball boy Callum Hynes passed the ball to the right person. The boy was then thanked by José Mourinho, who was coaching Tottenham at the time, and who said: “It was exceptional, he read and understood the game and made a very important assist.” Hynes, who was fifteen at the time, was then invited to spend some time with the Tottenham players.
Other times, however, it happens that someone who should just watch the sport ends up influencing him, usually in a negative way. Like those times when someone watching a basketball game from the very first row (once Lapo Elkann, in the last quarter of a game still in the balance) catches a ball that is still in play. Like the spectators of cycling races who with shoulder bags, signs, telephones or various carelessness cause the fall of a runner, or worse, dozens of them.
Or like the fan who in a hard-fought 2009 match between Liverpool and Sunderland threw an inflatable ball onto the pitch that ended up being decisive in what was the goal of Sunderland, who then won the game. The fan was from Liverpool.
Cases in which spectators end up influencing the game are quite common in baseball, particularly in cases where a ball ends up in an area where both the players on the field and the spectators from the front rows can catch it, stretching towards the field their hands, often equipped with special gloves. Situations of this type are known by the significant name of “interference” and in some cases – those in which the ball could still end up in the field – represent a possible “foul”.
For great detachment, among the many interferences of the Major League, the main baseball championship in the world, the most famous is the one starring Steve Bartman, a fan of the Chicago Cubs, a team that did not win the World Series for over a century, since 1907 to 2016.
On October 14, 2003, the Cubs were playing home at Wrigley Field against the Florida Marlins in a game that, if won, would allow them access to the World Series. In the eighth and penultimate inning the Cubs were 3-0 ahead and were playing defense when a Marlins serve ended between the field and the front rows of spectators.
Believing that the ball was now “out of play” several fans tried to catch it. Bartman also tried, who touched it preventing a Cubs player from catching it. If Moises Alou, the Cubs player in question, had caught the ball he would have knocked out the opposing second batter and neared the end of that inning.
Bartman instead diverted it, however without being able to catch it. The Marlins then recovered, won 8-3, qualified for the World Series and won those too.
Already in the last minutes of the match between Cubs and Marlins, Bartman was identified by most of the fans as responsible for the comeback of the opponents. He left the stadium prematurely escorted by security and never showed up again, delegating to a lawyer friend of his the task of responding – generally to say that he had nothing to say – to the many requests for interviews or television appearances that arrived in following. Over the years Bartman has become something of a baseball legend and the story of him often mentioned in television series, cartoons and comic programs. He was also the protagonist of a documentary by ESPN by title Catching Hell: the Steve Bartman Story.
Over the years Bartman has also received, more or less directly, insults and threats of various kinds from other fans. To try to fix things, as early as 2003 the Cubs invited him to return to Wrigley Field, but he refused. Other than the usual anniversarieshe returned to talk in 2016, when after 108 long years of waiting the Cubs they returned to win the World Series, putting an end to one of the most famous “curses“Of North American sport.
There were those who asked him to symbolically throw the first ball of the first match of the finals, but refused. In 2017, the leadership of the Cubs gave him one of the rings reserved for the winners, saying they hoped he could end the whole affair. Bartman broke his silence and He answered with a statement in which he said he was deeply moved and sincerely grateful: “My family and I will take care of it generation after generation,” he wrote. He then added that he hoped that his experience of him could serve to “see sport only as entertainment, avoiding the search for scapegoats” as had happened in his case.