October 17, 2008 7:09 pm

Outside Edge: The good sports who lead the world

The most curious thing to have come out of the credit crisis so far is probably the discovery that Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, was once in France’s synchronised swimming team. This emerged during last weekend’s international pow-wow of finance ministers, when someone mentioned that the experience would have taught her about co-ordinating with others. Ms Lagarde said it had taught her something else, too – “you also have to hold your breath” – which was a reasonable joke for a finance minister.

Ms Lagarde may be the only synchronised swimmer among the people who run the world, but scrutiny reveals that most of them are even more sports-mad than normal people. That tells us something about politicians. Of the Group of Eight leaders, only Japan’s new prime minister, Taro Aso, competed in clay pigeon shooting in the Montreal Olympics. But he seems to prefer manga comics to ball games, which must leave him a bit isolated in after-dinner conversation.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, owns AC Milan football club. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of French football trivia. Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, who could not play team sports as a child because of his asthma, is writing a book on the early history of professional ice hockey. Angela Merkel has become the de facto mascot of the German football team. Vladimir Putin has a black belt in judo (see YouTube).

President George W. Bush – once such a mediocre baseball player that his more gifted father wrote, “Georgie is so eager. He tries very hard” – first broke into public life as managing director of the Texas Rangers team. If Mr Bush ever gets the chance, he might enjoy talking baseball with fellow aficionados Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro.

Mr Bush’s probable successor, Barack Obama, is nuts about basketball. And at the last two Labour party conferences, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, has told the story of losing an eye playing rugby at school. This then handily segues into a spiel about Labour saving the National Health Service.

For Mr Brown, sport is probably the one thing outside his family that humanises him. Indeed, politicians often trot out their sporting experiences to make them seem like regular people, insofar as synchronised swimming can make anyone seem regular. However, they are not faking it. They genuinely love sport. That is largely because they are strivers who find in sport the same thing that draws them to politics: naked public competition. Washington, DC, is often called “Hollywood for ugly people”, but in fact it is more like Yankee Stadium for unco-ordinated people.

Politicians have much the same mindset as professional sportsmen. They just are not as good at sport. Nor do they seem to be as good at running the international financial system as, say, Mike Tyson or Diego Maradona would be, but that is a separate problem.

The writer is an FT columnist

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