In the celebrity firmament that circles around us, sports stars are among the brightest lights. Kobe, Tiger, Messi, Márta, Sachin, and Serena can be recognized from most points on the globe. But other stars are visible only in certain lands: Yuna Kim, Barbora Špotáková, Sébastien Chabal, Andrés Guardado, Israel Folau, Buster Posey, Brian Urlacher. Although not as bright as first-magnitude stars, these sports celebrities are prominent in their particular areas, selling products, talking religion, visiting schools, hosting reality shows, or simply showing their athletic talent.
But do these stars have a larger significance, or are they just part of the media din? Can we learn something about societies by charting the sports celebrities that people look to? What might we learn, for instance, about America in the Eighties from studying the stories and images of Bird and Magic, or Australia at mid-century from The Don, or Austria of the interwar decades from Uridil and Sindelar? And is it possible that there are common features to our fixation on sports stars, across different cultures?
Historian Dennis Frost takes up these questions in his book Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan (Harvard University Press, 2011). Beginning in the late 1800s, when Japan’s modernization program was spilling into sports, Dennis looks at the prominent place of star athletes in the nation’s culture through the 20th century. His case studies feature some of the most famous figures in Japanese sports: the sumo grand champion Hitachiyama, track athlete Hitomi Kinue, baseball pitcher Sawamura Eiji, and champion boxer Gushiken Yoko. We learn of these stars’ influence in modern Japan, as well as that of the brightest sports star of them all: Ichiro.