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Neil Chiplen:

Breaking the plane

Neil Chiplen examines the incident involving Benn Olson and a spectator in Cardiff Bay

Neil Chiplen - Neil Chiplen Posted 31st October 2012 view comments

Stop the clock. Freeze time. Hold the moment.

At a sporting arena, a fan has left the confines of the area reserved for spectators. He has crossed the invisible plane that lies between the crowd and what can be defined as the field of play. He has broken a rule that is both written and unwritten. A rule that is widely respected, but on the rare occasion it is not, the outcome is potentially catastrophic.

Benn Olson: Entitled to self-defence?

Benn Olson: Entitled to self-defence?

Chicago, 2003. At the end of the White Sox's eighth inning, hitter Carlos Lee swung his bat and connected, sending the baseball skyward over US Cellular Field. As the ball landed safely in the glove of a Kansas City Royals player, a fan broke the plane. He left his seat, entered the field of play and made a beeline straight for umpire Laz Diaz, a former US Marine Corps reserve. The fan didn't fare too well.

Sheffield, 2012. Chris Kirkland stood in goal, hands on his hips, reflecting on one that had just gotten away. In the corner of his eye, he was stunned to see a figure rushing towards him. In that brief moment between recognition and outcome, he imagined the Leeds United fan laughing and screaming at him in celebration of Michael Tonge's equaliser. The fan laughed and screamed, sure. After he'd smashed Kirkland in the face.

Hamburg, 1993. 1.5 centimetres. A distance in tennis that regularly defines the difference between an ace and a fault. Only on April 30th this year, it defined the length of the stab wound in the back of world number one Monica Seles.

When a fan crosses that plane, the majority of times the outcomes are harmless: A streaker, a pat on the back, a hug. But on occasions these unpredictable consequences are dangerous, and potentially life-threatening.

Cardiff, 2012. Benn Olson whipped the crowd up into a frenzy. His behaviour was the standard of previous Elite League enforcers, playing to the crowd after the theatre of combat. It's part of the interaction between the participant and the audience. It's what strengthens the desire to defeat the opposition, to cheer the punches, to pay at the gate. Olson had taken the verbal abuse and he was offering his retort. The adrenaline level was rising.

Olson left the ice, crossing the plane that clearly delineates the playing surface from the spectator seats. Now he stood in that hazy middle ground between his place of business and the sanctuary of the locker room. He was in the corridor between two safe havens. In many arenas this zone is out of bounds, the tunnel that leads from the catacombs of the stadium to the gladiatorial battlefield. The only interaction, if any, usually possible is a high-five between a gloved hand and a young paw that reaches out for affection. At the Cardiff Bay Arena, only the thin membrane of the security barrier and a handful of employees guard this boundary. At the time, all eyes would naturally have been on Olson himself, this giant figure leaving the ice. Everyone was waiting on his next move.

Adrenaline

Nobody expected this hulking figure to be physically challenged. Everyone had seen what he'd just done. There are few in the league that would challenge Olson on the ice, so why would somebody step to him off it?

Of course, somebody did. And in that split second, at that precise time, in that very moment when a fan had breached the plane and was inches from the participant, the outcome is unsure. Was he going to point a finger and scream? Or was there something else? Were we reassured by Olson's size and demeanour that he could handle anything thrown at him by an adrenaline fuelled and frenzied man?

Olson's behaviour and the events in that game had triggered the response. Olson had helped to raise the adrenaline level. But by no means whatsoever, had that justified it. By no means, is a spectator invited to skip the barrier and cross the line. By no means, should that be allowed to happen. And by no means, should somebody be so doltish to do it.

Behind the metal rail, the fan remains free to lift his finger and blow his lungs out, but there is too much history in sport for these actions to cross the plane.

How do we feel about this incident if this is Ross Venus leaving the ice? Of course, Venus would never incite the fans like that, but the question remains.

How do we feel about Olson's punishment because he's a fighter, capable of defending himself? Should he have thrown a punch? Should Chris Kirkland?

In that brief moment between uncertainty and reality, Olson is free to protect himself. Based on the evidence of the unpredictability of these situations, any competitor should protect themselves. Even if the fan had no further intention than to provoke and get in his face, Olson's actions were justified.

This is a moment that is easy to analyse in the cold light of day, from multiple camera angles with time to reflect. Olson didn't have this. All he was confronted by was a lifetime of seeing what has happened to others in similar situations when a fan has crossed the plane and the natural instinct of self preservation. An instinct that was heightened after he left the ice following a 12-round bout with Devin Didiomete. In the heat of the moment? Olson was the heat of the moment.

This is why Olson should go unpunished. The discipline afforded the Devils is debatable, as is the absence of the name "Mike Egener" from my inbox this morning. But Olson was acting in self-defence, in a moment that was entirely unpredictable. Nobody knows what to expect when a fan crosses the plane.

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