January 20, 2012 10:14 pm

A sporting chance for politicians

In our strange age, sport has become the perfect trampoline into politics

Usually, the face of an Olympics is a furry animal mascot. The Salt Lake City winter Games of 2002 used a private-equity mogul instead. “Hey Mitt, We Love You,” proclaims one typical Olympic pin, over the square-jawed features of the Games’ organiser Mitt Romney. (Furry animals played supporting roles.)

When Romney clinches the Republican presidential nomination, he’ll owe it largely to the Olympics. In our strange age, sport has become the perfect trampoline into politics.

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Simon Kuper

The tradition began on January 26 1994, when Italy’s richest man announced on several TV channels at once that he was entering politics. Silvio Berlusconi said, “I have chosen to take the field” – and that was the key phrase. The president of AC Milan football club was co-opting the language of sport. He even named his party, Forza Italia, after a football chant. John Foot, historian of Italy, explains: “After long research, Berlusconi’s advisers came to the conclusion that the only language that unites Italians was that to do with football.”

Berlusconi had turned corruption-stricken AC Milan into European champions. Now he promised “to make Italy like [AC] Milan”. Here was the insight that had eluded political philosophers for centuries: the football club as model for the state. Even after winning office, Berlusconi kept up the sports chatter. Simon Martin writes in his new book Sport Italia: “As club president he enters directly into Italian homes to self-publicise and talk about football, where other politicians talk of less interesting things, like politics.”

In 1994, the year Berlusconi became Italian prime minister, a baseball executive was elected governor of Texas. George W. Bush had campaigned largely on his experience as managing director of the Texas Rangers: there was little else on his resumé. The link with the ultimate American game also helped make him seem ultimately American.

Politicians are always studying their rivals for ideas, and by about 2000 they spotted the power of sport. Money was flooding into sports, making club directors more significant. This was the only industry in which rich businessmen could become popular heroes. In Argentina Mauricio Macri, chairman of Boca Juniors football club, began running for mayor of Buenos Aires. Years later he got the job, and now wants more.

illustration of Mitt Romney

Romney, never one to miss an opportunity, took charge of the Salt Lake City Games after they got mired in scandal. With a budget shortfall of $400m, he began by deflating expectations. Instead of the Olympic torch, he joked, a gas barbecue grill might have to do. He instructed senior officials to smile, recruited some unlikely sponsors – notably the “official Olympic cake mix” – and staged an excellent Games. In the patriotic frenzy after the September 11 attacks, he became a national hero. Months later he was voted governor of Massachusetts, his first political office.

Today, sport is even more potent because the economic crisis has discredited party politicians. Mikhail Prokhorov, billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, won’t win Russia’s coming presidential elections. However, by next year both the US and Pakistan could be ruled by sporting politicians.

Imran Khan, who tops Pakistan’s opinion polls, is unusual among sporting politicians in having actually played sport. Playing rarely impresses voters. It’s tricky to argue that running around sweatily is ideal preparation for running a government. Even George Weah, Liberian footballer and national icon, narrowly lost his country’s presidential elections in 2005. (Weah played for Berlusconi at Milan, and told me he considered him a role model.) The ex-footballer Eric Cantona, now notionally running for French president, understands he cannot get elected and merely hopes to publicise the plight of the homeless.

But Imran is special. If you had to invent a sportsman to succeed in politics, he would be a cricket captain: the one sporting role that combines strategic leader and athlete. In a perfect world, he would also be a handsome patrician who had captained his country to a world cup while playing with a wrecked shoulder. “Who will save Pakistan? Imran Khan!” chant the crowds at his rallies now, as if it were all a cricket match.

Imran could become prime minister, but he might end up regretting it. People spend decades building a reputation, then ruin it within months in politics. No wonder a generation of politicians is now reversing the Berlusconi manoeuvre: they are using politics as a trampoline into sport. Bertie Ahern parlayed his 11 years as Irish prime minister into a sports column in the News of the World. (Even before the newspaper imploded, Michael Lewis called it possibly “the least respectable job in global journalism”.) David Miliband rose from being British foreign secretary to director of Sunderland football club. And Condoleezza Rice used to speak wistfully of becoming commissioner of the US’s National Football League, but after seeing what she’d done to the world the NFL didn’t want her.

If Romney does become president, he’d better watch out. If things go wrong, he may never work in sports again.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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