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Sports and Politics: Five athletes who became politicians

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 01: Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (L) poses for a "selfie" with U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House to honor the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There are many fans and athletes that will vehemently argue for the separation of sports and politics. These practitioners and followers of our favourite pastimes argue that the purity of sporting triumphs and athletic endeavours are sullied by the intrusion of Machiavellian meddling and sordid scheming from shadowy figures in parliament.

But those of who study history will know that sport does not exist in a vacuum. The games we play have a symbiotic relationship with the world around us. 

There are some though who take this connection to the extreme. A handful of athletes are not merely content to shift public opinion through their performances on the field but, once they have hung up their boots, embark on a political career. 

Here we select an elite group of athletes who now have their hands on the levers of power.

Imran Khan Pakistan Prime Minister, Cricket World Cup winning captain

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan gestures during a joint press conference with the Turkish President at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on January 4, 2019. (Photo by ADEM ALTAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Arguably his nation’s greatest ever cricketer, the 1992 Cricket World Cup winning captain is currently facing a much more daunting challenge than any bowler he ever squared up against. Tensions on the Pakistan-Indian border are at boiling point with nationalists on both sides revelling in the escalating conflict that has already seen fighter planes from both armies shot down. 

Hostilities between the two nuclear-armed nations have cooled in recent weeks since a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian troops on February 14 in the disputed Kashmir region. Despite this, the BCCI, Indian cricket’s governing body, has threatened to boycott the highly anticipated fixture between the two teams at this year’s World Cup in England. This charged narrative is yet to run its course.

If Khan can repeat his composure in the 1992 World Cup final, where he scored a match winning 72 against England, then his country, and indeed the region, is in safe hands.

Ralph Metcalfe Member of US House of Representatives, Olympic sprinter


US Olympic team sprinters (from left) Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Frank Wykoff ahead of the 1936 Games.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Jesse Owens tarnished the Nazi’s assertion of the superior race, but he did not do it alone. Trailing just behind him and collecting silver in the 100m was Ralph Metcalfe, an African-American sprinter who underlined the fallacy of Adolph Hitler’s warped world view.

Metcalfe already had a silver medal at home after finishing second at the Los Angeles Games four years before — where he also bagged bronze in the 200m — but went one better as part of a team. Alongside Owens, Metcalfe was part of the 4x100m relay team that beat out the fascist states of Italy and Germany.

After retiring, Metcalfe served in the United States Congress for four terms in the 1970s as a Democrat from Illinois. He also co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 and was an outspoken critic against police brutality until his death in 1978.

Ryoko Tani Tamura Japanese politician, judoka legend

Japanese Ryoko Tamura celebrates after defeating Frederique Jossinet of France in the women’s under 48 kg class final of the World Judo Championships in Osaka, 14 September 2003. AFP PHOTO/Kazuhiro NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Few athletes dominate their sport as much as Japan’s Ryoko Tani Tamura dominated the 48kg female judo world.

With two Olympic gold medals in Athens and Sydney complimenting seven World Championships between 1993 and 2007, she was the undisputed champion of her weight division. At one point in her career she remained unbeaten for 12 consecutive years. In a career spanning two decades she was only beaten five times.

In 2010 she represented Japan’s Democratic Party as a proportional candidate in the House of Councillors election. It was only after she won a seat that she officially retired from judo.

In July 2012 she left the Democratic Party for the newly created, pro-denuclearisation People’s Life First party.

George Weah Liberian President, African footballer of the year

13 NOV 1995: GEORGE WEAH OF AC MILAN TAKES ON THE PARMA DEFENCE DURING THE SERIE A MATCH BETWEEN PARMA AND AC MILAN WHICH WAS PLAYED AT THE ENNIO TARDINI STADIUM, PARMA. Mandatory Credit: Allsport/ALLSPORT

‘King George’ as he was affectionately known throughout his glittering career, is widely recognised as Africa’s greatest ever footballer. A three-time winner of the African Footballer of the Year award in 1989, 1994 and 1995, Weah became — and remains — the only African to win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player ion 1995.

As a deadly finisher, he made over a hundred appearances at both Monaco and AC Milan either side of a spell with PSG over 96 matches. 

As captain of the national side he would pay for the needs of his teammates himself. This would include paying for players to travel to matches, supplying kit and even offering bonuses for winning games. 

This philanthropy led him to a world of politics and, following the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, he announced his intention to run for President in 2005. A lack of formal education was used as a stick to beat Weah with and he lost to his Harvard educated opponent.

However, he continued to cultivate his popularity with ordinary Liberians and in January last year became the fourth-youngest serving president in Africa. His win at the polls also marked the country’s first democratic transition in 74 years. Though he has a long way to go, his pledge to eradicate corruption and reform the economy have given many of his followers hope.

Wladimir Klitschko — Mayor of Kiev, heavyweight boxing champion

LONDON, ENGLAND – APRIL 26: Wladimir Klitschko takes part in an open workout at Wembley Arena on April 26, 2017 in London, England. Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko are due to fight for the IBF, IBO and WBA Super Heavyweight Championships of the World at Wembley Stadium on April 29. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

After claiming gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games as the super-heavyweight champion, the six foot six inch boxing machine steamrolled hits way through the heavyweight division in world boxing.

His first professional fight ended in a first round knockout of his opponent shortly after his Olympic gold medal and less than two years later he was 17-0 and WBC International Heavyweight Champion.

His first loss as a professional came in his 25th bout, but he soon got back to winning ways and reclaimed his title and reputation as the best in his weight class. Though he’d end his career with two losses to Britain’s two most exciting heavyweight prospects — Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua — he retired win 2017 as a legend of the sport.

Klitschko speaks four languages, holds a PhD in sports science and in 2013 addressed a crowd of angry protesters during the Euromaidan protests in Kiev after politicians decided not to sign an agreement linking Ukraine’s government to the European Union. A year later, Klitschko won the Kiev mayoral elections with 57% of the votes.

All images via Creative Commons

Daniel Gallan
A South African native, Daniel is interested in the blurred lines between sport and politics, class and culture. After graduating with a BA honours in journalism from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg he pursued a career in freelance sports reporting and feature writing. He also hosts South Africa's only cricket podcast Short Fine Legs. Over the years Daniel has contributed for various print and online publications such as Wisden, ESPN Cricket Monthly, Cricbuzz, the Mail & Guardian, SuperSport, SA Cricket Magazine, the Daily Maverick and others. He was the Content Director for CONQA Sport, a sports and business development organisation, where he published weekly features and hosted panel discussion with prominent athletes and sports practitioners. Now, working as the editor of the Sports Gazette, Daniel is passionate to bring his experience and enthusiasm to the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan
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