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          End of hero worship?

          End of hero worship?

          Michael Schumacher.

          Lewis Hamilton became the most successful Formula One driver when he overtook the legendary Michael Schumacher with his 92nd victory at the Portuguese Grand Prix last Sunday. It's an astonishing achievement; given he is only 35 and drives the best car in the business, it's frightening to even imagine what he can achieve eventually. And perhaps wonder if he will ever be surpassed statistically.

          But that's what we thought when Schumacher signed off with 91 wins. That's what we thought when Sunil Gavaskar bowed out with 34 Test tons, when Pete Sampras stacked up an unprecedented 14 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

          Records are meant to be broken, said American swimming great Mark Spitz, but do record-breakers of the modern era strike an emotional connect with their fans? While they are quite popular, do they wield the same influence as achievers of yesteryear? They may possess the same skills, but do they command the aura that pulls audiences to stadia or draws them magnetically to their television sets?

          Golf isn't the same as when Tiger Woods prowled the course like only he could; Formula One doesn't have the same charm as when Schumacher, and before him Ayrton Senna, scorched the tracks. It’s almost a given that tennis will not have the same feel to it once Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal hang up their racquets. We are already witnessing the impact of the inconsistency in the women's field post Steffi Graf's retirement and, more recently, with the inevitable decline of Serena Williams.

          The same goes for football. Is there anyone on the horizon that can even approach the adulation and hero-worship enjoyed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, both closer to the end of their careers than the beginning??In the post-Muhammad Ali era, we are yet to see another heavyweight boxer who?has raised the profile of the sport like Mike Tyson did. And it's impossible to imagine another?sprinter?like Usain Bolt, arguably the greatest showman the sporting world has ever seen?and whose mere presence in any arena in any part of the world sent the crowd into a tizzy.??? ?

          Closer home, who after the now-retired M S Dhoni? Virat Kohli does have a huge fan-following, but does he enjoy the same adulation Dhoni still does, or Sachin Tendulkar did during his playing days??

          That brings us to the question of whether the era of hero-worship has come to an end. Whether there will any longer be sporting heroes who enjoy cult-like following for the length of their careers, and sometimes beyond that, too. Sportspersons who attract undivided attention?and unalloyed loyalty?from their supporters. Are there?any future heroes who inspire in their fans enough passion to argue their case?forcefully at the risk of ruining relationships, and spend a fortune travelling across cities, or even the globe, to?cheer them on?

          Hamilton may have broken Schumacher's record, but?will he ever enjoy the same status as the German icon?because of whom millions across the world started following F1? Or even the disgraced Lance Armstrong, who?ignited interest in cycling’s Tour de France like never before? Since his fall,?the event too has suffered a major dip in popularity. It's been almost a decade since Woods' game took a hit due to a combination of factors but the American remains the biggest draw in golf even to this day. Not unlike Schumacher, Woods too enhanced golf's following across generations, besides inspiring many to take up the sport. Novak Djokovic may eventually overtake both Nadal and Federer numerically, but can he ‘touch’ fans outside his country like these two giants?

          Likewise, Kohli might surpass most of Tendulkar's records, but will Indian cricket fans hold him in the same reverence and affection in which they did the boy-next-door? People from across India hopped on trains?and flights to watch the Mumbaikar's farewell Test in Mumbai in 2013. The lucky ones got into the stadium and those who couldn't, wandered around Wankhede aimlessly for the three days of the match. And when he delivered a 20-minute speech at the end of the match, he left everyone in the packed stadium emotionally so overwhelmed that it reportedly drove Rahul?Gandhi, who was present at the ground, to recommend the batting legend's name for the Bharat Ratna, which he received the following year.

          Today's sportspersons are in no?way inferior to yesteryear stars in terms of talent. If anything, they are fitter?and faster, and do provide a different dimension to sport.?But they lack something their predecessors had in abundance. It could be the aura or an air of mystery around them or the ability to charm fans or a combination of all these. Superstars of a more relaxed times had the luxury of showcasing their character and personality, along with their sporting exploits. Their life wasn't structured like today's athletes. While that in itself is not a bad thing, the newer generation seems to be in auto-pilot mode, like performing machines with no emotions attached and put-on smiles-on-demand that vanish the moment the camera is off.

          Another reason for the gradual disappearance of the ardent fan has to be over-exposure. You?switch on the TV, and there are these athletes, endorsing a brand or in a repeat telecast of an old match or an old interview in a 24/7 sports channel. You log on to social media, they are there, promoting?a product, providing a peek into their personal lives, giving rehearsed interviews or conducting interactions with their fans. There is?nothing that the fans don't know about their favourite sportsperson. The absence of mystery?has weaned away the fans' interest in an athlete to a large extent.

          In a fast-paced world,?this?may be?the way forward for overworked athletes who are as much brands as they are human beings. It’s a phenomenon that’s come to stay, but it has come at a huge price. Despite the omnipresence, the player is only just that today, no longer an emotion like a Tendulkar used to be.

           
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