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The sports field could be the next left field where political leaders come from


Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

There’s no reason why sports fame cannot be translated into political power.

Premier Ashwin Willemse, anyone? Or maybe President Lucas Radebe? How about Cape Town mayor Benni McCarthy?

None of that is as laughable as some would suggest. Around the world, political leaders are emerging from surprising places – or at least from places without any real political experience or pedigree – and there’s no reason why sports fame cannot be translated into political power.

In fact, it’s already a thing.

After decades of trying, Imran Khan is set to become prime minister of Pakistan having first made his name as an imperious all-rounder and captain of the national cricket team in the 1980s. (He also was, by the way, the preposterously handsome sex symbol of the UK summer of 1982. I knew several sensible, grown women who watched hours of televised cricket in that year for no other reason than to see Khan polish a cricket ball on his groin.)

And footballer George Weah, once FIFA’s World Player of the Year, became president of Liberia in 2017 having first run for the position 12 years previously.

Weah and Khan are the only two big sports stars who have leveraged their celebrity into a position at the very top of the political tree, unless someone wants to count Idi Amin who was light-heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda for nine years before he took power. But plenty of others have achieved lesser positions.

Former world heavyweight boxing champ Vitali Klitschko dabbled with a presidential bid in Ukraine but settled for becoming mayor of Kiev. Another famous pugilist, Manny Pacquiao, is a senator in the Philippines. Russian chess genius Gary Kasparov is the unofficial leader of the opposition to President Putin. In the UK, Seb Coe went from gold on the track to the cabinet, and it would not be a major surprise to see footballer (and prolific tweeter on Brexit issues) Gary Lineker make the same leap. Sri Lankan cricket stars Arjuna Ranatunga and Sanath Jayasuriya both became cabinet ministers but it’s somewhat surprising that various cricketers have only had marginal success in gaining office in India.

The United States has serious form in this area. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first gained attention as a body-builder and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura also somehow got himself elected as a state governor. American footballer Jack Kemp, basketballer Bill Bradley and famous Olympians Bob Mathias, Jim Ryun and Ralph Metcalfe were all prominent national representatives.

And there are plenty of big names on the current landscape who could gun for the US presidency. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is a highly articulate spokesman on social issues and the Trump phenomenon has prodded the likes of Tom Brady, LeBron James and Steph Curry into roles as political actors. Colin Kaepernick is far more famous for his kneeling protest during the anthem than he is for his ability as a quarterback.

In South Africa, I can only think of two reasonably prominent examples of this kind of transition in the past, if we exclude people like Nelson Mandela, Mosiuoa Lekota, Robert Sobukwe and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who all had considerable sporting talents but were not primarily famous for them.

Dawie de Villiers, Springbok rugby captain of the ‘60s, became a National Party cabinet minister who survived into Nelson Mandela’s first government. And the late Clive van Ryneveld, who captained SA at cricket in the 1950s and played for England at rugby, briefly became a Progressive Party MP.

It’s highly likely that more will follow down this path in the years to come, especially as there are strong rumours that Ashwin Willemse is already being tapped for a political role.

And if it’s not sports people moving into politics then it will be probably be the comedians. One of their number, Beppe Grillo, is the power broker in Italian politics with his Five Star Movement, and Jimmy Morales is president of Guatemala after being nothing more than a TV comic. His election-winning slogan was “Neither corrupt, nor a thief!”, which showed just how low the bar was.

If that trend takes off here, we are spoilt for riches. I would be very happy with President Trevor Noah and a cabinet of Loyiso Gola, John Vlismas, Nic Rabinowitz, Tumi Morake, Riaad Moosa, Alan Committie and Tats Nkonzo, with Marc Lottering, please, as mayor of Cape Town. DM


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