The pursuit of happiness

Celebrities these days are created — no, manufactured — and destroyed at a whim. The post-modern hubris of well intentioned but deluded celebrities, who take it upon themselves to spread peace, is no longer challenged; we have come a full circle, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

There was once a talented — if `talented' is the word — Roman gladiator named Spartacus whose appalling lack of focus encouraged his involvement in a slave rebellion; he might have been the first sporting superstar to be remembered as such but alas, history (or myth) had other uses for him.

In those times, when audiences were localised and distinct, political and literary achievements canonised a nation state. Consequently, we've heard much of Plato but almost nothing concerning Chionis of Sparta, who, at the Ancient Olympics held in 656 BC, reportedly bounded into the record books with a leap of seven metres and five centimetres — far enough to have won him gold at the inaugural modern Games in 1896. Partly, that underlines the ephemeral nature of sporting fame; more relevantly it puts in perspective the social significance of athletic achievement.

Broadly speaking, you qualify as a celebrity in your own time period when people, whom you do not know, claim familiarity — a point tangentially addressed by W. G. Grace, the man who single-handedly turned cricket into a spectator sport in the mid-to-late 1800s: the story goes that when Grace was bowled off the first ball of a match, he continued at the crease, remarking, "They came to see me bat, not to see you umpire."

Few people, however, fit that definition a century ago, in the age of newspapers and sea-travel and the fledgling radio broadcast; these were mostly politicians or movie actors, until Albert Einstein — a precursor to Bono, really — broke that trend. There was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field at the Berlin Olympics; a staggering achievement in itself, but in the Nazi Germany of 1936 it had the impact of a forceful political statement. Owens's eminence remains inescapably rooted in context.

Colour television transformed the careers of charismatic players like Bjorn Borg; it raised them to the echelon of rock stars, celebrities purely serving the cause of entertainment. Sport stopped relying on spectators for an audience, and later, corporate sponsorship. A global audience was introduced to new fads. Suddenly the hangdog look was in, Borg became the new Lennon. Another case in point: John McEnroe, whose colourful tantrums were ideally suited to the broadcast medium.

Elsewhere, the Kerry Packer-led corporate takeover of cricket has been well documented. It would be an understatement to assert that television swung the door shut on the amateur era in nearly every sport — barring, well, croquet.

The marriage between sporting tradition and prestige spawned the cult of personality. Having a clear goal to aim at made the chase worth it. The adrenaline kicked in, the competition was staked out. Sport transformed from a jaunt in the park to a gladiatorial fight to the finish.

Cut to the present, when celebrities are created — no, manufactured — and destroyed at a whim. The post-modern hubris of well intentioned but deluded celebrities, who take it upon themselves to spread peace, is no longer challenged; we have come a full circle. Then, there is this curious need to promote friendships such as the one between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, in public. It would strike one as shameful but not shocking should that relationship prove a cynical invention in the interest of a sponsor's business. At its extreme, the Web has carried publicity into the domain of self-aggrandisement.

Surrounded by the plethora of sportsmen known for their haircut or sartorial taste, stand unique personalities like Sachin Tendulkar. This quiet and largely uncontroversial man, universally acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen of his generation, is compelled to visit temples in the middle of the night. He has forever been cut off from the simple things, like watching sunsets on the beach while munching on a fistful of `bhelpuri' or standing in line in the movie theatre.

Fame is a strange beast. A mechanically uttered word of greeting or a moment's eye contact could mean the world to a fan. The bloodlust of the public drives branding and marketing, but in the latter day context the reverse is equally true. Journalism, especially in the area of sport, thrives on pictures, and by extension on personality. Magazine covers not only capture the man of the moment, sometimes they make him.

Kevin Pietersen first assaulted our consciousness with the Pepe le Pew streak of white running through his hair; Marat Safin on the other hand caught our attention back in 2000 as the potential heir to Pete Sampras's throne. How fortunes have changed. To his credit, albeit unexpectedly, Pietersen has emerged as the face of English cricket, while Safin, a regurgitated McEnroe with all the talent but a fraction of his titles, has been confined to the fringes of his sport, a footnote in history.

That is the saddest thing about fame, its most vicious aspect; you are left, all too often, snatching at fool's gold.