In July, the State of Origin III, a rugby match that’s one of Australia’s most fervently watched sports events, was disrupted by a chubby, bald-headed man who ran out onto the field, clad only in running shoes.
Wati Holmwood, 33, who reportedly had oiled his body to make it more difficult for security guards to catch him, eventually was subdued, covered with blankets and escorted from the field, but not before 83,000 spectators and millions of TV viewers around the world caught a brief glimpse of a few parts of Holmwood that were better left to the imagination.
The next day, bizarrely, the father of two was at a loss to explain why he’d pulled the stunt. “It all happened so quickly -- I don’t know what was going through my head,” he told a reporter for Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “I just wanted to make (the game) interesting.”
It was yet another inscrutable moment in the history of streaking, in which participants -- either by themselves, or in groups -- sprint naked through public places. Since streaking emerged as a what seemed like a passing fad on U.S college campuses in the mid-1970s, the propriety-tweaking, attention-seeking rite has evolved into a continuing, albeit puzzling, social phenomenon.
Over the past few decades, streakers have flaunted themselves at major public events all over the world, from the 2004 Super Bowl to the runway at the 2013 Milan Men’s Fashion Week. According to news reports, they’ve also bared their posteriors at scores of less ostentatious venues, such as a local Wal-Mart and a screening of an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie.
Even so, social scientists struggle to explain why doffing one’s clothes in public-- despite the risk of embarrassment, disapproval and even arrest -- has such an enduring appeal to some.
“We really don’t know that much about it,” said Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist who teaches at Harvard University. “There hasn’t been a ton of research about people who engage in streaking behavior.”
Doffing one’s clothes in public, of course, is a practice that goes back at least to the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece, and the first documented streaker in U.S. history was George William Crump, who ran naked across the campus of what is now Washington and Lee University back in 1804.
But it wasn’t until the Watergate era that hordes of college youth— -- as the throng of more than 500 University of Maryland students who chain-danced up a local highway in 1974 -- began flaunting their privates. The unclad dashers of 40 years ago often actually were met with approval by authority figures, who were relieved that they weren’t protesting and occupying campus buildings.
“It actually was sort of a conservative act -- engaging in 1950s hijinks, as opposed to wanting to change the world,” explained Bill Kirkpatrick, a Denison University assistant professor in communication who has researched the history of streaking. “It was almost entirely white men streaking, and it was encouraged as a return to normalcy.”