Beckham and Kournikova: Celebs like no other

The celeb is offered flowers by Japanese school children as he visits the Tsukiji elementary school in Tokyo. -- Pic. AP-

More than in any other era in the past, we are now witness to an age, in sport as much as in entertainment, where it is no longer a question of who's great and who's not. It is merely a question of who's hot and who's not. And David Beckham is hot. So indeed is Anna Kournikova, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

TYPE out the name David Beckham in the tiny rectangular column on Google search and then press Enter. It takes exactly 0.18 seconds for the finest search engine on the Internet to dig up and display 468,000 results.

If you are serious about your research, and want to do a thorough job, it would perhaps take 18 hours and more for you to examine all the results concerning the King of all sporting celebrities.

And once you are done, you might just want to check how the long-reigning Queen is doing. So, you type out the name Anna Kournikova. It takes only 0.9 seconds, half the time taken for Beckham, for Google to come up with 320,000 results.

Of course, few names might have appeared as often on the search column of Google or Lycos or any other search engine on the Net in all cyber-history, so to say. Perhaps Osama bin Laden and Harry Potter might have made it there more often but nobody in the world of sport — not even Michael Jordan or Ronaldo — can match the figures for Kournikova.

But, then, there is some Real bad news for the blonde bombshell from Moscow. Web researchers have confirmed that Beckham's transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid has set off such a flurry of activity on the Net that worldwide he has become Google's most popular sportsperson, with Kournikova a rather distant second. There are 5,040 images of the golden boy of English sport on the internet, which puts him ahead of Tony Blair and the late Princess Diana in the celeb list.

Then again, if there is a little distance between Becks and Anna, then the gap between these two and the third best would perhaps be greater than the length of the Amazon river.

From the days of the good Dr. W. G. Grace and the French diva Suzanne Lenglen, the world of sport has always been familiar with the fame game.

For, it is a game within a game. Many earn fame because they play a game well, or very well, or at the level of geniuses. Then there are a handful who continue to earn fame simply because they have earned fame. And they have the good looks and charisma to build on that base of fame.

Fame begets fame. Kournikova is famous because she is famous. The woman who has made more money in endorsements than anybody else in women's tennis in recent times is yet to win a single WTA tournament and she has been sidelined by a back injury for much of the season.

Yet, last fortnight, when she turned up to play exhibition events in the name of World Team Tennis in the United States, thousands turned up to worship at her manicured toe nails, so to say. At every stop there were dozens of reporters and photographers vying for a ''new angle'' to the big story.

David Beckham and his wife Victoria join their hands upon their arrival at New Tokyo International Airport in Narita, northeast of Tokyo. -- Pic. REUTERS-

And Becks? Ah, Becks is another deal altogether. The Best phenomenon of the 1960s, when the gifted Irishman — George Best — was celebrated as the fifth Beatle and followed by tabloid reporters and photog<147,3,1>raphers even into pub toilets, was no more than a ripple, so to say, compared to the tidal wave of media attention on whose crest the Becks phenomenon rides towards the pinnacle of sports celebrity.

In England, more than in most countries, sports celebrity can reach an extraordinary level of intensity because television and tabloids are forever in search of heroes, perhaps to replace the icons of the now vanished Empire.

From the Buckingham Palace to the Beckhingham Palace then, it is no more than a short hop. The soap opera has simply been renamed. The stage is the same. So is the audience. Much of the star cast is familiar too. Just that the lead role has been reassigned, from the late Princess Diana to David Robert Joseph Beckham, from blue blooded royalty to working class hero. It is a sign of the times perhaps.

Beckham is certainly a product of the era in which he lives and performs. Yet, as a sports celebrity, he is a pure one-off. At 28, he is not only one of the greatest footballers of this generation but also a happily married father of two, a dream husband to pop star Victoria ("Posh'' Spice), a doting father to sons Brooklyn and Romeo, a fashion icon, entertainer and role model for <147,4,0>men and women of many different denominations, so to say.

He is as popular with Japanese housewives in suburban Kyoto as he is with football loving college students in Kolkata; as big a hero with the gay community in London as he is a role model for dreamy eyed aspiring young footballers in places as far apart as Hamburg and Singapore.

Internet domain names featuring number 23 have soared in popularity the moment the handsome Englishman chose to put that number on the back of his shirt playing for Real Madrid.

Every imaginable combination with Real Madrid and Beckham and No. 23 have already been registered. Beckham23.com, Becks23.com, becks23.co.uk, beckhamatrealmadrid.com, every single thing has been taken.

And youngsters across Europe and Asia were awaiting the release of the new Beckham shirt, in Real colours with the No. 23 emblazoned on it, almost as eagerly as kids looked forward to the release of the latest Harry Potter book last month.

``He is the purest sports celebrity in the history of the world,'' Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and <147,5,0>sport at Staffordshire University, said in an interview to USA Today recently.

Cashmore, who has authored a wonderful sociological study of the footballer, a work simply called Beckham, said: "Tiger Woods? Michael Jordan? They redefined their sport, and they are respected. But Beckham has transcended that. He is worshipped. His fan base goes far beyond sports; many of them don't even care about football.''

This is very true. For, a significant percentage of people who worship the young Englishman have never, ever delighted in the magical quality of his free kicks. For them, bending it like Beckham is more readily associated with celluloid stuff.

A few weeks ago, en route to London for Wimbledon tennis, I was at a cocktail party in Mumbai where this young lady, the wife of a famous industrialist, asked me if I, as a sportswriter, have ever met Beckham. And this was right in a middle of a conversation between me and her husband about Andre Agassi's chances at Wimbledon!

A touch disappointed when told that I had not had the opportunity to shake hands with the "great man,'' the lady nevertheless persisted. She wanted to know everything this writer could tell her about her hero.

Finally, the question had to be popped: "Have you ever watched him play'' I asked her.

She smiled a very charming smile and then said: "Ah, I have never watched a football match on TV. In fact, I never watch sport at all.''

That's celebrity for you. And Beckham, in my mind, is the father of all celebrities as Cashmore points out.

More than in any other era in the past, we are now witness to an age, in sport as much as in entertainment, where it is no longer a question of who's great and who's not. It is merely a question of who's hot and who's not.

And David Beckham is hot. So indeed is Anna Kournikova.

Of course, from Grace and Lenglen to Best and then Gabriela Sabatini and Andre Agassi and Shane Warne, the world of sport has witnessed an endless parade of celebrities. But nobody ever came close to achieving the status of a Beckham or a Kournikova; this, again, is understandable for we now live in the high noon of celebrity worship in the world of sport.

24/7 sports channels and hundreds of sports, celebrity and gossip magazines and newspaper columns feast on every little sneeze or smile that a Beckham or a Kournikova would care to offer them in public.

Many earn fame because they play a game well, or very well, or at the level of geniuses. Then there are a handful, like Anna Kournikova, who continue to earn fame simply because they have earned fame. And they have the good looks and charisma to build on that base of fame. -- Pic. JAMIE McDONALD & CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

What a Warne or a Sachin Tendulkar or Sourav Ganguly might experience in the small community of cricket playing nations would hardly count as celebrity culture compared to the Beckham and Kournikova phenomena.

Camera toting hordes follow Becks and Anna wherever they go in every major city they happen to visit. Tabloids and television simply cannot have enough of them and readers and viewers never get tired of yet another Beckham story or a slice of Anna gossip.

A few years ago during the Wimbledon fortnight, a popular London tabloid ran a daily column called the Kourna Corner which stayed alive long after the player had lost in the tournament. And during the tournament itself, tabloid hacks were persistently demanding to know why Kournikova was wearing a diamond ring in her third finger!

What about her misbehaving serve? To hell with all that. This is normal service when it comes to Kournikova.

In every passing era, the images of celebrities have been stamped on popular culture. But in a fast shrinking world, the twinkling stars of sport, performing in a global village, seem more accessible than ever before, although in reality they are more isolated and inaccessible than at any time in the past.

It is precisely because we know so much about Becks and Anna — so much that we've read in papers and magazines or seen and heard on TV — that we actually know very little about them, as individuals.

Beckham likes to wear a sarong once in a while; so what does that say about him, as a person?

Kournikova loves shopping for jewellery and wearing clothes that would perfectly fit women half her size; so what does that say about her, as a person?

This is strange business, really. For, the moment we lap up everything on offer, we assume we know them as well as anybody can know them. But we don't. It's the image we know, it is the image we are in love with.

And, then again, what has really happened in sport is, celebrity has replaced fame in most cases, not the least in Beckham's and Kournikova's.

Quite often, people get confused. Pete Sampras is famous; therefore he might be considered a celebrity. On the other hand, Kournikova is a celebrity, therefore she is famous.

``The sign of celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services,'' wrote Daniel Boorstin.

This is very much true of Kournikova, although not Beckham, who has proved his worth as a footballer of some merit, no matter that, in my mind, he is over-rated as a footballer.

Through the decades, we have found out that it takes a very special person to reach beyond the persona of a sports celebrity and aim for a brush with authentic sporting immortality.

Muhammad Ali did it in style; George Best failed, finding solace in booze and in the arms of beautiful women.

But, then, whether David Beckham goes on to hold up the European Cup or the World Cup as England captain before he's done with football, whether Anna Kournikova manages to win her maiden WTA Tour title, maybe even a major, are not issues that deeply concern a good majority of the men, women and children who worship the reigning King and Queen of the sporting celebrity game. Hey, wait a minute... actually the number of results for Becks and Anna might have swelled in the time you took to read this. Perhaps it is time to get to Google again!