Why don’t sport and politics mix?
JUNE 5 — One of the more unexpected sport-related stories of the weekend came from India, where cricket megastar Sachin Tendulkar became a member of Parliament on Friday, taking the oath in the country’s Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha.
As the first player to score 100 centuries in international cricket, Tendulkar is one of the best batsmen of all time, and quite probably the greatest Indian sportsman ever — his legions of devoted fans certainly wouldn’t dispute either of those notions.
Tendulkar has explained that he made the move with the ambition of increasing the prominence of sporting issues within Parliament. For now, his political dabblings will only be a part-time affair because he is still an active cricketer, but there is already inevitable speculation that he will eventually become a leading member of Parliament.
If that does happen and “The Little Master” ultimately makes the successful transition from sports to politics, he will join an elite group because past experience has tended to suggest that a successful career in sport very rarely leads to a successful career in politics.
One of the few exceptions is Pakistan’s former cricket captain, Imran Khan, who remains a significant political force — at least amongst the mass of the population — in his home country after first founding his own political party when his playing career ended in the mid-Nineties.
Elsewhere in Asia, Filipino boxing world champion Manny Pacquiao has made a promising start to his career in the political arena, having been voted as a congressman in 2010 and now preparing to play a big role in next year’s elections.
Sebastian Coe is another who gave it a shot. The English middle-distance runner was a multi-world record holder and an Olympic gold medallist, and later became a moderately successful member of the Conservative Party before turning to sports administration (he is now chairman of the organising committee for this summer’s Olympic Games).
I’m sure there are a few more examples that I’ve missed — but not that many. Why not? On the face of it there are many similarities between sport and politics: they both require dedication, ambition, leadership abilities, determined commitment to winning and, often, a deep personal need for the limelight.
Furthermore, most of us have a natural inclination to want to hear the views of our favourite sports stars, and to assume that they must have something worthwhile to say about life and society. Our ears are already open to sportsmen and their initial popularity is already secured, unlike most politicians who have to scramble like mad to get themselves noticed and known.
So why does it not happen more often?
The first and most obvious reason is money. Top sports stars become accustomed to being rewarded for their talents with top dollar contracts, and those levels of remuneration are very rarely forthcoming in the world of politics (and rightly so). Set against all the aggravation and sheer hard work of joining politics, choosing instead a more than decent wage for a bit of television punditry is a pretty understandable decision.
However, there are plenty of millionaire sportsmen who don’t need the money after they retire and would willingly take a drop in wages to become an influential public figure — plenty of former sports stars turn to philanthropy, after all, devoting their time and energy to setting up charities without receiving any significant personal financial reward.
The main factor, I suspect, that prevents sports stars moving into politics is that succeeding in sport requires a narrowness of focus and blinkered dedication to self that is simply incompatible with political life.
To survive as a leading test cricketer player for more than 20 years, for example, Tendulkar has had to marry his outstanding natural talent with an absolute and uncompromising commitment to himself... and himself alone.
He is also surrounded by a horde of people who are there to serve him and assist him in achieving his personal aims: sports scientists, physiotherapists, agents, equipment providers and so on. Empathy is not a required quality — in fact, it would be a weakness because it would detract from the simple aim of preparing one man to hit cricket balls.
Making it to the top as a sportsman or woman demands selfish dedication, self-obsession and simplicity of focus, and those qualities offer an ill preparation for the delicate manoeuvrings and subtle negotiations that inevitably accompany political activity.
Even the meanest of political dictators (unless they seize power by force, of course) have to work out a way of getting their views accepted by sufficient voters and fellow politicians to make a difference; the task for sportsmen is more self-centred and less devious.
Tendulkar doesn’t have to schmooze, grease palms and make secret alliances to be a successful cricketer; he simply has to focus on looking after his body and batting. It will be a different matter within the halls of Parliament.
So sports stars are more inherently selfish — but also more honest in their endeavours – than politicians, who have to be capable of forging strategic personal alliances to make themselves popular in the right places. Maybe that’s why a career in one rarely leads to success in the other?
Anyway, with this weekend’s news that he’s been attacked outside a nightclub in Liverpool, I know exactly which sports star — one who already fancies himself as a deep thinker — should give up his playing career and instead turn to politics: the Right Honourable Joey Barton MP, anyone?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.