Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

The admirable humility of Japanese sports stars

Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani attends a press conference on his presentation after signing a ten-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers (Getty)

Who is the best paid sportsperson in the world? Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps? Or Kylian Mbappé? Lionel Messi? Novak Djokovic? LeBron James? Well, no. As of last week, it is someone even reasonably well-informed sports fans may not have heard of – a certain Shohei Ohtani, Japanese slugger and pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ohtani’s ten-year, 700-million-dollar contract is the most lucrative in sporting history.

Except technically Ohtani will not be the best paid sportsperson in the world, or at least not until the end of his term, as he has chosen to defer nearly all of his salary so that the bulk of the money can be invested by his new club in the team (he apparently has written assurances to that effect). He will exist on a paltry stipend of two million dollars a year (virtually minimum wage in Major League Baseball) and no interest will be paid on his postponed earnings.

There is a Japanese aversion to flaunting wealth or stepping outside their area of expertise

Of course Ohtani, the clean-cut, good-looking, scandal-free bachelor will pick up an additional fortune from endorsements – he has what the Asahi newspaper called ‘transcendent marketability’ – so he will hardly be living hand to mouth. Still, his decision, clearly motivated by a desire for the World Series pennant rather than any wish to get hugely rich quickly, is remarkable in the modern world of elite sport, where an almost protean greed dominates, as the mesmeric lure of the Saudi pro league for many already super-rich stars proves.

Ohtani is no outlier, though: his modesty and relative indifference to riches is characteristic of Japanese sports stars around the world. Ohtani has effortlessly stepped into the shoes of the retired Ichiro Suzuki who spent 20 years as one of the best – if not the best – sluggers in Major League Baseball while remaining untouched by controversy and scrupulously polite in dealings with the press and fans.

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