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Sports producing political leaders

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Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi, Imran Khan to the cricket world, was last week sworn in as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan after being victorious in the latest general elections held in July.
The man who achieved eternal fame as the captain who led his often strife-torn country to its only international cricket trophy, the World Cup (one-day international) in 1992, was finally elevated from sporting icon to the political leadership of his country.

Imran’s political triumph was no overnight accomplishment. Following his decision to enter his country’s troubled political life after his retirement from cricket, life has been far from a bed of roses for the charismatic cricketer. He has experienced what it is to go from the highs of national and international sporting glory to the lows of political rejection. In spite of his social interventions, such as the construction of a cancer hospital and actions on behalf of international organisations, he failed repeatedly to realize his ultimate political ambitions.

In 1996, he formed his political movement, the PTI, but was unsuccessful when he contested the polls in 1997. He spent the last 21 years in political opposition, winning his seat at times, but being unable to come out on top of the Pakistani political power structure. He led protests against US military adventures in Pakistan, including drone missile strikes which killed many innocent Pakistanis, including children. But it was not until the elections of last month that, after topping the polls though not achieving an overall majority, he was able to put together a governing coalition which allowed him to become Prime Minister.

Imran is not the first leading global athlete to become his country’s political leader. Currently, George Weah is the 25th President of the war-torn West African country of Liberia. Weah is a footballer of iconic status, the only man to be voted as Player of the Year in Africa, Europe and the World (FIFA) in 1995. Following his retirement from the game, he too took to politics. Like Imran, he experienced what it was to have a climb-down, being unsuccessful in his quests for the presidency of his country (2005) and the vice-presidency six years later.

His sporting discipline propelled him to keep up the challenge and last November he was finally elected as President of Liberia, a post he currently holds. He joins Imran Khan as the two most prominent sporting figures internationally, to head their respective country’s political establishment.

Others who have excelled in the sporting field, have had success in their respective countries, even though not necessarily as Head of State or Government. In the Phillipines, global boxing hero, Manny Pacquiao, is a Senator in Parliament, with ambitions of going further. Another boxer, Vitali Klitscho of the Ukraine, aspires to political leadership of his country, and is currently Mayor of its capital city, Kiev.

Right here at home in the Caribbean, Grenadian Prime Minister, Hon. Keith Mitchell, was a national spin bowler and captain of his country’s cricket team in the ‘70s, while in Dominica, a former national footballer and President of the Football Association there, Patrick John, not only went on to national political leadership, but unfortunately achieved notoriety in that position as well.

Those who therefore do not equate sporting prowess with that of other professions are sadly mistaken. A successful sporting career can prove as much as a foundation for national leadership as any other. If lawyers, engineers, accountants, doctors and entrepreneurs can go on to steer the ship of state, why not cricketers, netballers, footballers or Olympic athletes?

The examples of Imran Khan and George Weah must serve as inspiration to our athletes to prove that they are no less capable than any others who excel in their respective disciplines to go on to lead their countries. We must encourage them to so aspire.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.