Sporting Life

Calling someone a superstar is just a case of hit-and-myth

If you are not a "great" athlete these days, in effect you are nothing. Just super-irrelevant. In a Twitter time when exaggeration has become confused with enthusiasm, it is the minimum grade for anything. To be called "good" is akin to indifference. "Fine" is what people use for colour-blind dressers. "Very good" is the childish remark teachers wrote in your report card. "Awesome", well now, that's just super-exciting.

If I'm ranting about the words we use in sport it's because golf commentators - usually engaging and tired possibly after a long, wordy season - called Jon Rahm a "superstar" twice on Sunday and I wanted to hurl a dictionary at my television.

Just for the record, the online Oxford Dictionary explains the word as "an extremely famous and successful performer". Rafael Nadal is extremely famous, Rahm is not. LeBron James is extremely successful, Rahm has won three professional tournaments and is not.

Let's not blame this on Rahm, who's simply a young lumberjack of a golfer with an embroiderer's touch. He's just a victim of our modern over-speak (this includes me) and proof of our need to attract attention even if it means misusing language.

To be fair, the commentators did describe the elements of Rahm's talent, but others can get too lazy for nuance. As if the detailed explanation is too time-consuming. Better instead to feed all that information into one of those compactors you find in car graveyards and out comes banal, bite-sized chunks that are easily digestible. Stuff like "superstar".

"Superstar" is often a hopeful and hurried anointing of an athlete, wherein we set his destination and then ask him to kindly complete the journey. And if he doesn't make it, relax, there's always another one next year, another "Next Tiger Woods" for instance, which we were assured was going to be Rory McIlroy and look what's happened to that story.


Jon Rahm of Spain with his girlfriend Kelley Cahill after winning the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai last Sunday. Television commentators twice referred to the Spaniard as a "superstar" on the final day of the tournament, even though he has won only three professional titles. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the past weeks the "superstar" label has been attached to stories on Kevin de Bruyne, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Joshua, Gareth Bale, Andre Greipel, Kidambi Srikanth and Justin Rose. There's some robust talent in that crew and yet, without diminishing any of them, none is a superstar. Not by my definition.

A superstar is one of a lunatic kind (Michael Phelps), has a personality that's irresistible (Serena Williams), fills seats outside his country (Cristiano Ronaldo) and lifts participation rates (Simone Biles). He makes non-sporting mothers watch (Roger Federer), is the standard by which we judge others (Nadia Comaneci) and won't blink at 25,000 flashing cameras while winning every race you want him to (Usain Bolt).

"Superstar" is often a hopeful and hurried anointing of an athlete, wherein we set his destination and then ask him to kindly complete the journey. And if he doesn't make it, relax, there's always another one next year, another "Next Tiger Woods" for instance, which we were assured was going to be Rory McIlroy and look what's happened to that story.

Put those ingredients in a cocktail shaker and make your own mix but you won't get Rahm. Not yet. He's 23 and has played as many Majors, six, as Nick Faldo has won. Give him a break. And also some time.

In the old days, carnival barkers were people who called out to passers-by to attend a show by exaggerating its novelty. Sports commentators sometimes sound like that, as if it's their duty to lend an overwrought voice in building ratings and fabricating brands. The amount of "legends" in sport these days sounds like a bit of a myth.

Of course we want to classify and catalogue athletes, rank them and rate them, but maybe in all the super-this and mega-that we're missing some of the joy of it all. We should be able to watch Virat Kohli bat without constantly turning into tailors and whipping out a measuring tape and sizing him up against Sachin Tendulkar.

To be truly good at anything requires patience because this is not instant coffee but the gradual process of athletes discovering themselves. We can estimate talent but hasty labels are pointless for we're never sure where it will lead or end and that's the wondrous mystery of it. Rahm is only painting the first, persuasive brushstrokes of his career. To see a masterpiece already is, well, super-ridiculous.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'Calling someone a superstar is just a case of hit-and-myth'. Print Edition | Subscribe