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The terms hero and celebrity increasingly are being used interchangeably, but they are fundamentally different. According to Daniel Boorstin: “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness…. The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero is a big man; the celebrity is a big name” (1992, 57, 61). Thus, there are some clear distinctions between the two concepts, and the challenge is to ascertain how and why they have become conflated. First, we must examine the meaning, significance, and types of heroes and why sport remains such an important site for their identification and development. In turn, we need to understand how changes in wider society have tended to shift attention, status, and rewards from heroes to celebrities.
What Is a Hero?
Heroes and heroines have existed throughout human history. From ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the twenty-first century, societies and cultures have created, defined, and otherwise recognized what is known as a hero (Klapp 1949). In Browne’s (1990) view, heroes highlight the potential and possibility of humans by expanding and/or conquering the physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and altruistic limits of human beings.
There are many cultural arenas through which individuals have emerged as heroes, and sport has always been one of them. There are likely many reasons for this, but in particular sport as a cultural practice and institution offers the opportunity for the demonstration of physical superiority in a system with clear rankings and rewards; the display of courage, commitment, and sacrifice; and the chance to represent a particular group, community, or nation. In a contemporary commercial context, the last point is quite important given that “only sports has the nation, and sometimes the world, watching the same thing at the same time, and if you have a message, that’s a potent messenger” (Singer 1998).
Even a cursory look at the diversity of sport heroes, both historical and contemporary, indicates that they emerge from a wide range of personal achievements, social backgrounds, and cultural contexts. In effect there are different ways by which heroes emerge. Although the typology that follows is not exhaustive it may aid in understanding the process of how different individuals became heroes. Although the categories are not mutually exclusive, one becomes a hero in one of four ways (Ingham, Howell, and Swetman 1993). First, a person can perform an extraordinary superhuman feat. In actual fact heroes are often people who perform ordinary things but at a much higher level and with much greater consistency than the average. A few people who fit this category might include Sir Donald Bradman, Babe Didrikson, Jessie Owens, Paavo Nurmi, Pele, Nadia Comaneci, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Carl Lewis, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong.
Second, one can become a hero by being the first to achieve at a particular and unexpected level. Such a category would include people like Sir Roger Bannister who, in 1954, was the first person to break the four-minute mile; or Sir Edmund Hillary who, along with Tenzing Norgay, was the first to climb Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, in 1953.
Third, one can become a hero through risk taking, personal sacrifice, and/or saving a life. There may be no better example of this type of hero than Canadian Terry Fox. Diagnosed with cancer and with part of his right leg amputated, Fox set out to run across Canada in what he called “The Marathon of Hope.” Sadly, his run ended after 3,339 miles because the cancer had spread to his lungs. Terry Fox died at age twenty-two on June 28, 1981. Still his life and mission are celebrated annually. Each September 13 marks the Terry Fox Run and to date his foundation has raised over $360 million.
Finally, a person can become a hero by virtue of a particular performance within a specific sociohistorical context: being the right person at the right time (see Ingham, Howell, and Swetman 1993). One example of this type is John Roosevelt (Jackie) Robinson, who, facing enormous racial discrimination and other social barriers, in 1947 became the first “black” athlete to play modern major league baseball.
Hero or Celebrity?
The world still has heroes, but something has changed in terms of the type of people that society celebrates and rewards. Increasingly, status appears to be something that is manufactured versus achieved, and heroes are being marginalized by celebrities, stars, and idols (cf. Andrews and Jackson 2001, Dyer 1979, Gamson 1994, Rojek, 2001). While there are no simple answers to explain this transformation, consideration must be given to the emergence of the society of the individual, a greater scrutiny of private lives embodied in an exploitive tabloid culture, and a world driven by consumption, advertising, and marketing. As a consequence “everyone is involved in either producing or consuming celebrities” (Rein, Kotler, and Stoller 1997, x). Arguably, the most powerful vehicle in this shift are the media whom Leo Braudy (1997, 550) calls the “arbiters of celebrity.” The media are global, immediate, and increasingly interconnected, resulting in a virtual saturation of celebrity culture linked to sport, music, fashion, movies, and reality television.
Ultimately, we are left with a challenge to gain a better understanding of the social and political function of contemporary heroes and celebrities. In part this will require an examination of who has the power to define heroes and celebrities, under what conditions, and in whose interests.
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- Boorstin, D. (1992). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Random House.
- Braudy, L. (1997). The frenzy of renown: Fame and its history. New York: Vintage.
- Browne, R. B. (1990). Contemporary heroes and heroines. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
- Carr, E. (1961). What is history? London: Penguin.
- Dyer, R. (1979). Stars. London: BFI Publishing.
- Gamson, J. (1994). Claims to fame: Celebrity in contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Ingham, A., Howell, J., & Swetman, R. (1993). Evaluating sport hero/ ines: Contents, forms and social relations. Quest, 45, 197-210.
- Klapp, O. (1949). Hero worship in America. American Sociological Review, 14 (1), 57-63.
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- Rowe, D. (1999). Sport, culture and the media: The unruly trinity. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
- Singer, T. (1998, March). Not so remote control. Sport, 36.
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