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Talented athletes in the world who went on to become politicians

Sportspersons make natural leaders and thus, it is not a surprise that we see the world is chock-a-block with many athletes who become politicians at later stages of their lives.

However, not everyone gets to hold a high office, such as the head of state or government, governor or a cabinet minister. This is why the Philippine presidential race is on the radar of many; one of the greatest boxers in history is a prime contender for the top post.

Incredible athletes who went on to become politicians

 

Gloves on for Manny Pacquiao

athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy Manny Pacquiao/@MannyPacquiao/Twitter

The Filipino boxing legend is aiming for that one punch that will make him one of the powerful figures in the world. The 42-year-old, who has been a Senator since 2016 and was a Representative previously, is contesting in the 2022 Philippine presidential election. To dedicate himself fully to his people and politics, Pacquiao formally retired from boxing on 29 September 2021 — 10 days after announcing his candidacy.

Whether Pacquiao is able to script history in the political ring like he used to do in the ‘squared circle’ will become certain only next year.

However, many renowned sportspersons have been able to replicate their sporting success to a great degree in political offices. From an African footballing legend and a flamboyant American wrestler to a Japanese Olympic great who has been making headlines in her country’s politics, here are some of the most prominent names.

George Weah — President of Liberia

George Weah
Image: Courtesy John Wessels/AFP

One of the greatest athletes who became a politician, the legendary Liberian footballer is currently serving as the 25th president of his country.

Born on 1 October 1966 in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Weah started playing football at an early age using homemade rag balls. Following a string of early successes in Africa, he was signed by French Ligue 1 club, Monaco. During his five-year career with the club, from 1988 to 1992, the striker played a crucial role in the team’s victories, including winning the Coupe de France in 1991.

A superstar in France, Weah played for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) from 1992 to 1995. During this period, his prolific goal-scoring ability helped the team with the Coupe de France (1993 and 1995), Ligue 1 (1994), and Coupe de la Ligue (1995). He was also the top scorer at the 1994–95 UEFA Champions League.

He also won Serie A league titles twice (1996 and 1999) while playing for Italian club AC Milan from 1995 to 2000. He became the first, and only African footballer to this date, to be honoured with the Ballon d’Or in 1995.

Briefly joining Chelsea (he won the FA Cup in 2000 for the team), Manchester City and Marseille in the twilight of his career, Weah retired from football while playing for Al Jazira in 2003.

The three-time winner of CAF African Footballer of the Year was also named FIFA World Player of the Year and France Football’s European Footballer of the Year (both 1995).

Weah began his political career in 2003, running unsuccessfully for the presidency two years later. However, he persisted in his years-long efforts to bring peace and stability to his war-torn homeland.

Eventually, Weah won the election to the Liberian Senate from Montserrado County in 2014 and three years later, he won the presidential elections. Weah was sworn in the following year.

Imran Khan — Prime Minister of Pakistan

Imran Khan
Image: Courtesy Imran Khan/imrankhan.pti/Instagram

Imran Khan is best known in the world of sports for captaining Pakistan to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup. Born on 5 October 1952 in an affluent family in Lahore, Khan made his international cricket debut in 1971 with a Test match against England.

Khan was an all-rounder and lorded over the game during his spectacular sporting career, which ended with the World Cup victory in 1992. In just 88 Tests, he took 362 wickets at an average of 22.81 and scored 3807 runs, including six centuries, at an average of 37.69. In the limited-overs version of the game, Khan took 182 wickets in 175 matches at an average of 26.61 and scored 3709 runs.

An ethnic Pashtun, Khan is a graduate of the University of Oxford. He didn’t immediately enter politics after retiring from cricket; instead, he spent a few years as a philanthropist. Khan founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, which marked his formal entry into the turbulent political landscape of his country.

Khan toiled hard and despite PTI’s struggles at the polls, Khan carefully cultivated his image as an anti-corruption crusader. He became a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly when his party won one seat in the 2002 elections.

Khan continued gaining more support from the Pakistani society and positioned himself as a formidable opposition politician. Protesting against Pervez Musharraf’s reign, Khan was briefly imprisoned in 2007. Eventually, in 2013, his party won enough seats to become a key opposition to Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Following Sharif’s disqualification from office in 2017 because of the Panama Papers controversy, elections were held in 2018. PTI emerged as the single-largest party in the polls. Following which, Khan formed a coalition government to become the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan and entered the exclusive clubs of sportspersons who became politicians and acquired high office.

Khaltmaagiin Battulga — Former President of Mongolia

Khaltmaagiin Battulga athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy Battulga Khaltmaa/@battulgakh/Instagram

Through the 1980s, Battulga distinguished himself as a sambo practitioner, both in championships at home and abroad. Later, he became the president of the Mongolian Judo Association. During his tenure, the country won its first Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

His success in sports also helped him become a widely known businessman in his country. His first business enterprise was named Genco Holding, after the fictional company owned by Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). The company is also one of Mongolia’s largest holding companies.

In 2004, Battulga was elected as a member of the State Great Khural (Mongolian parliament). Four years later, he was made the minister for transport and urban development — an office he held until 2012. He then became the minister of industry and agriculture for two years until 2014.

In 2017, Battulga, a member of the Democratic Party, contested in the country’s presidential elections. He presented himself as a messiah of the poor and won both the first round and the runoff to become the fifth president of Mongolia since the collapse of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1992.

A constitutional amendment in 2019 increased the term of the president to six years from four but barred all future presidents, including the incumbent from serving more than one term. A political crisis ensued and Battulga could not bid for re-election.

Marcus Stephen — Former President of Nauru

athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

A “true champion”, in the words of legendary Australian weightlifting coach Paul Coffa, Stephen won seven Commonwealth gold medals and five silver in weightlifting between 1990 and 2002. He also participated in three Olympics, representing Samoa in 1992 at Barcelona and then Nauru in 1996 at Atlanta and 2000 at Sydney.

His greatest sporting success came in 1999 when he lifted 172.5 kg clean & jerk to win the silver at the World Weightlifting Championships in Athens, Greece.

The most successful sportsperson in his country’s history, Stephen also won 12 gold medals at South Pacific Games and was Oceania champion 13 consecutive times from 1987 to 1999.

A member of the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, he chose the path of the athletes who became politicians and was elected president of Nauru in 2007, following Ludwig Scotty’s ouster in a no-confidence motion. However, Stephen’s presidency was marred by political turmoil, including corruption allegations.

He resigned in 2011 but maintained his activity in Nauru politics. Since 2019, he has been serving as the Speaker of the Parliament of Nauru. He is also the president of the Nauru Olympic Committee.

Tarō Asō — Former Prime Minister of Japan

Taro Aso
Image: Courtesy Charly Triballeau/AFP

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader succeeded Fukuda Yasuo as the Japanese premier for one year from 24 September 2008 to 16 September 2009.

Three years later, he was made the deputy prime minister and given the charge of finance ministry alongside two other ministries. His tenure ended on 4 October 2021 when Fumio Kishida became Japan’s 100th prime minister and renewed the Cabinet.

Asō, the longest-serving postwar deputy prime minister as well as finance minister in Japanese history, is currently the deputy LDP president. He has been a Member of the House of Representatives 10 times since first elected to Diet in 1979.

Born on 20 September 1940 in an affluent business family, Asō is the grandson of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru and son-in-law of former Prime Minister Suzuki Zenkō. He also became related to the imperial family when his sister Nobuko married a cousin of Emperor Akihito and became Princess Tomohito of Mikasa.

Outside of politics and his family business, Asō is best known as an accomplished skeet shooter. He was a celebrated competitor at the national level for more than a decade in his prime. His accomplishments as a marksman led him to the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He could not win a medal and did not compete in any future Olympics. However, Asō is counted among top athletes who became politicians.

Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura — Former Governor of Minnesota

athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy Jesse Ventura/@jesseventura/Facebook

During an interview on the Today show earlier in 2021, Dwayne Johnson, famously known by his pro-wrestling moniker ‘The Rock’, made it crystal that he will run for US president when he thinks it is the right time. Given his staggering stature as a pro-wrestling legend and the world’s highest-paid actor as per Forbes, Johnson’s plans shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

However, it was a shock to political pundits back in 1998 when Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a famous former pro-wrestler, became the governor of Minnesota. The US has produced many athletes who became politicians, but Ventura is among the few who attained immense fame as a sporting figure and an elected leader in one of the top-most political positions in his country.

Born as James George Janos on 15 July 1951 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ventura served in the US Navy as a member of the elite SEAL. A Vietnam War veteran, he briefly worked as a bodyguard for the rock band, The Rolling Stones, before taking to pro-wrestling.

His glory as a sportsperson came during his stint with WWF (now WWE), where he was known for his flamboyant outfits, featuring sequins, leopard-skinned leotards and feather boas. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ventura wrestled his way to fame and fortune and later became a commentator for WWF.

In 1987, he made his big-screen debut with Predator playing the role of Blain Cooper alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger. Three years later, he became a politician and was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

Yet, it was the 1998 gubernatorial race in the state that made headlines across the country. Ventura contested as a candidate of the Reform Party, promising tax rebates and expressing support for gay rights and medical marijuana. In a three-way race, Ventura, who was practically seen as a ‘joke candidate’ by many experts, defeated seasoned politicians Norm Coleman of the Republican party and Hubert H. Humphrey III of the Democratic party.

Ventura, thus, became the first Reform Party candidate to win a statewide office, though he left the party while he was governor and joined the Independence Party. Ventura didn’t seek re-election after his term ended in 2003 despite his popularity as a governor. He continues to be politically active.

Seiko Hashimoto — Former Minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan

Seiko Hashimoto
Image: Courtesy Akio Kon/POOL/AFP

Hashimoto is one of the few female athletes who became politicians and among the fewer who have equally excelled in both arenas.

The Japanese speed skating great till most recently served as the president of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. When she was named for the post, Hashimoto became the second woman in the world to have become the president of an Olympic organising committee after Greece’s Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who was the chief of Athens Olympics in 2004.

Hashimoto has the distinction of distinguishing herself in both sports and politics. Born on 5 October 1964, five days before the opening ceremony of that year’s Tokyo Games, her name was derived from the Japanese word for Olympic flame — “seika”.

Hashimoto has the most “multi-season” appearances in Olympics — four in winter and three in summer. She started as a speed skater in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and followed it up with appearances in the 1988 Calgary Games, 1992 Albertville Games and 1994 Lillehammer Games. Hashimoto won her only Olympic medal, a bronze, in the 1500 m speed skating event in Albertville.

She also participated as a track cyclist in the summer games at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

A member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Hashimoto was first elected to the House of Councillors in 1995 and has since been re-elected five times. When her first child, a daughter, was born in 2000, Hashimoto became the first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth while in office and was also the first politician in her country to take a maternity leave.

Before becoming the chief of the Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto held a string of political offices. She was made senior vice-minister for foreign affairs in 2008 in the Cabinet of the then Prime Minister Tarō Asō and minister for countermeasures to the falling birthrate, sports and gender equality in LDP Shadow Cabinet in 2010. In 2019, she was made the minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, minister in charge of women’s empowerment, and minister of states for gender equality in the then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore — Former Union Minister of State, India

Rajyavardhan Rathore athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy RajyavardhanRathore/@Ra_THORe/Twitter

When it comes to transitioning from sports to politics, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has been perhaps the most successful in India. Hailed as one of the greatest shooters of the country, Rathore won the silver in double trap at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

It was India’s only medal at the tournament, and Rathore was the first Indian to win an individual silver since the country’s independence. At the time, Rathore was serving as an officer of the Indian Army. All these factors together made his achievement appear beyond glorious and elevated Rathore to a god-like status at home.

However, the Olympics glory is not the only thing he achieved as a shooter. Rathore had earlier bagged a gold medal (and fame) in men’s individual double-trap at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. At the same tournament, he joined forces with Moraad Ali Khan to win the gold in the team category too.

He successfully defended his individual title at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and won the silver with Vikram Bhatnagar in the team’s event. The same year, he won a silver medal in men’s pairs double-trap and a bronze in the men’s individual double-trap at the Asian Games in Doha.

For his phenomenal achievements in sports, the Indian government awarded Rathore the Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour, in 2005.

Born in Jaisalmer on 29 January 1970, Rathore entered politics following his retirement from the Indian Army as well as sports. He contested in the general elections of 2014 as a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Jaipur Rural constituency and was elected to the Lower House of Parliament. He was re-elected in the 2019 general elections from the same constituency.

Many Indian athletes became politicians after leaving their respective sporting disciplines, but Rathore also built a prominent career serving in political offices.

Rathore has held key ministerial berths in the government. He has been a Union Minister of State, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, from 2014 to 2017, holding an independent charge between 2018 and 2019. He has also served as minister of state (independent charge), Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, between 2017 and 2019.

Jean-Paul Adam — Former Health and Social Affairs, Seychelles

athletes Who became politicians
Image: Courtesy ECA Official/Twitter

Adam began swimming as a therapy following an accident at nine. Soon, he began swimming in the waters of the sea around the island country. His experience and skill earned him a place in the country’s swimming team, which was formed in 1987.

Competing for Seychelles internationally, Adam won a bronze in the Indian Ocean Games in 1993, a silver in the 1998 edition and another bronze in the 2003 edition of the games. He also won a bronze at the African Games at Johannesburg in 1999. Adams also participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

After serving as a career diplomat and senior government roles, he was appointed the Minister for Foreign Affairs for Seychelles in 2010. He became minister for finance, trade and the Blue Economy in 2015, minister for health and social affairs in 2016 and eventually minister for health in 2017.

After leaving his post in January 2020, he became director for Climate Change, Environment and Sustainable Development at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Hero and Featured images: Akio Kon/POOL/AFP; John Wessels/AFP

Manas Sen Gupta
Manas enjoys reading detective fiction and writing about anything that interests him. When not doing either of the two, he checks Instagram for the latest posts by travellers. Winter is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.
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