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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"Uh-oh," someone muttered, "Evel Knievel has an enemies list."
Less than a month after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Knievel had gone to Idaho to jump the Snake River Canyon on his so-called Sky-Cycle—a motorcycle dramatically modified so that it was more like a rocket, with fins and a parachute—and 130-odd reporters had gone along for the ride. At some point in this endeavor, however, the hype had not only taken on a life of its own, but it had also begun to create its own strange reality. On the day of the jump, for instance, the promoters estimated the size of the multitudes around the canyon rim and made provisions to "evacuate" the press from the launch site by helicopter because of the massive crowds supposedly choking the exit roads. Almost everyone wrote about these throngs, but they were never there. The state police later put the size of the crowd at about 13,000—a realistic estimate—but reporters, faced with a choice between believing the hype or believing their own eyes, went with the hype almost every time.
An hour before the jump, Knievel made his peace with the press, saying he had counted up all the good things about them and all the bad things about them, and the good had outnumbered the bad a million to three. "A million to three?" one reporter grumbled. "I guess the late returns haven't been counted yet."
All of this has produced a lot of thumb-sucking in newsrooms and at press seminars. At the AP Sports Editors' conference in Kings Island, Ohio, in 1985, a panel was convened to try to answer the question "How much is too much?" The sports editors of some of the foremost newspapers in America were called upon to explain their suffocating coverage of major events. "We were all there because we had allegedly overdone something," says Dwyre. The debate eventually degenerated into self-justification and ended in chaos when the panelists finally refused even to acknowledge there was a problem.
GREAT MOMENTS IN HYPE #6: "I think Bill Veeck was the founding father of hype," says Tim Leiweke, a vice-president of the Minnesota Timber-wolves, an NBA expansion team that will begin play next season. "He knew how to create an atmosphere for an event and still not overwhelm the event itself. For the most part." Leiweke hesitates for a moment, then adds mournfully, "Disco Demolition Night crossed the line."
Veeck was owner of the Chicago White Sox in 1979 when a disc jockey at an album rock station who abhorred disco music proposed the idea of admitting to Comiskey Park for 98¢ each fan who brought a disco record to be blown up on the field between games of a July 12 doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers. The promotion drew a sellout crowd of more than 50,000, many of whom began tossing firecrackers and records onto the field during the first game. After the game, the detonation of thousands of records in a giant container in the outfield touched off a melee during which an estimated 7,000 fans poured onto the playing field. A stunned White Sox spokesman later reported clashes between disco and antidisco groups.
"This is our generation's cause," one antidisco firebrand said. After a 76-minute delay and 37 arrests, the umpires declared the field unplayable, and the Sox had to forfeit the second game.
"Hi, it's Suzy Chaffee!" says Suzy Chaffee, sounding for a moment as if she can't quite believe it herself. She's speaking to the maitre d' of an excruciatingly fashionable restaurant in Santa Monica, the sort of place that's on the cutting edge of Eurotrash cuisine and hostile valet parking. They know her there, she had announced, her voice pealing like a bell, as she dialed the phone. "I'm having lunch with Sports Illustrated and I need a table for two!" she now explains to the maître d'. There's a long silence. Then, in a slightly more subdued voice, she says again, "Chaffee."
Again there is a lengthy pause. An unpleasant kind of recognition has begun to settle in. "E-E," she says at last.
Chaffee was one of the favorites to win the gold medal in the women's downhill at the 1968. Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. On the day of her race, however, she used the wrong wax on her skis and finished 28th. "But I still got the second-most publicity of anybody there," Chaffee says, "next to Peggy Fleming."