The Barbell Politicians

While not prevalent in the USA, weightlifters have a surprising history of political activity abroad.

Every leap year, weightlifters and other athletes look forward to the Olympic Games. But that is not the only show that year. It is also the year when the USA has its elections for a whole range of executive, legislative, and judicial positions at the national, state, and local levels, including the president. Both events feature exciting competition that often goes down to the wire.

No, I am not going to give my two cents worth on the various candidates. However, the election season has got me to thinking about how various sports figures have taken to the political trail over the years. Many politicians like to point out the fact that they played football or baseball in their youth as a way to show the voters that they are just regular guys. Only a small number have played varsity sports, most notably Gerald Ford (Michigan football). Even fewer were elite professional athletes, like US Congressmen Bill Bradley (basketball) and Jack Kemp (football).

In Canada, we have seen a large number of professional athletes head into politics. In my home province of Alberta, we seem to specialize in football players, while in Ontario it is hockey players that please the voters more. In the Ukraine, boxer Dr. Vitali Klitschko has served in the Ukrainian parliament and is now mayor of Kiev. In the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao juggles careers as a boxer, movie and recording star, and now as a congressman.

We have to wonder what is driving this phenomenon. Is it because after years of being in the public eye, these athletes may feel a need for a higher level of public service? Or is it merely ego?

The Ego Pushes, the Machine Pulls

To get the answer, I think we have to look at two factors: the push and the pull. The push factor may indeed have a large ego component. Most athletes simply do not have the time to run for office until their regular careers are over or nearly over. But it’s also significant that the desire to run for office comes at a time when our subjects are in physical decline. This is difficult to take for many who have spent the bulk of their lives basking in the public gaze. The thought of retirement and obscurity is a little hard to take for some of them. What better way to stay in the public eye than to run for office?

Another push factor is what I call the “search for gravitas.” Many in the general public see athletes as persons engaged in a very frivolous activity. They may be paid millions of dollars to play a boys’ game. The guy working 40 hours a week at a dead-end job may not see them as significant contributors to society, and they are well aware of this fact. The best way to solve this cognitive dissonance is to run for office, telling everyone that they are concerned about the direction their country is headed. If such a candidate is successful, he or she can turn that problem around after a few years in their new political career.

So now we can see that running for office solves some personal dilemmas for the fading athlete. Now let’s look at the pull factor. Most people do not just sit up one day in bed and decide they have to throw their hat into the political ring. More often than not, it is the political insiders themselves that come knocking on their door. Why is that? Well, it’s all about retail politics. In the industrial world, one group of people develops and manufactures a product, another group distributes it, and a third group tries to sell it to the public. So it is in politics. Universities and think tanks come up with new policy, the political insiders adopt those policies inside their party, and they finally look for a flashy candidate to sell those policies to the public. The latter is essentially a retailer of ideas to the voters.

Just like any industrial product, you want an attractive individual to do the selling. It is very useful to have somebody that the public already knows and trusts doing that selling. Athletes are not seen as political insiders, at least not in their early careers. This also helps on voting day. And don’t forget, athletes have spent their careers basically selling themselves to the public; a talent that will serve them well in politics. They also have the advantage of image, that of the tough competitor who knows what’s needed to get the job done.

Weightlifters and World Leaders

After considering all this and noting the number of already famous people who have taken a run at elected office, I naturally thought of my own sport of weightlifting. My immediate observation was that there would be very few if any weightlifters on this list. Football players outnumber them because there are a lot more football players. But after I sat and thought about it for a while, I realized that for a small sport, weightlifters have been very active on the political front.

It is true that in the USA there have been very few weightlifters run for office successfully. The most famous example is Arnold Schwarzenegger, if we count his early career as an Olympic lifter back in Austria. He became governor of California after successful careers in both bodybuilding and movies. The late Norbert Schemansky tried several times (without success) to get elected to the Michigan state legislature. Apart from them, there have been no others beyond the local level.

In the Commonwealth countries, the situation is a bit better. My own former provincial legislative member Naresh Bhardwaj was a lower-level weightlifter in his youth. Jeane Lassen is currently running for a seat in the Yukon Territorial Legislature, and has a very good chance of winning. Lassen has been one of our best female weightlifters, scoring high in many world championships and various games. She comes by her politics honestly, as her mother Moira is the first woman elected to the IWF board.

Current IWF vice president Sam Coffa was mayor of Hawthorn, Australia for a number of years. Former four-time 90 kg world champion Louis Martin ran for parliament in Great Britain but was unsuccessful. Three-time Commonwealth games winner Marcus Stephen used his athletic fame to propel himself into the presidency of the small Pacific island nation of Nauru. Such was his fame that weightlifting is now listed as the national sport of Nauru. Three-time Olympic champ Pyrros Dimas was, until his move to work for the US Federation, a member of the Greek parliament.

The heavyweight podium at the 1960 Olympic Games, featuring James Bradford, Yuri Vlasov and Norbert Schemansky.

Weightlifter Politicians in the Former Soviet States

But it is in the successor states to the old Soviet Union where weightlifters have been most successful as politicians. And I don’t just mean someone who trained a bit in their youth; I mean people with multiple Olympic gold medals. The list is long.

In the small Baltic country of Estonia, 1968 90 kg gold medalist Jaan Talts sat in their parliament. The same year’s 75 kg winner Victor Kurentsov served on his city Council, and later with the Soviet’s Italian Embassy. David Rigert, the legendary 90 kg champion, was also a city counsellor. His long-time teammate Yuri Vardanyan has served in the Armenian Parliament and is now ambassador to neighboring Georgia.

But it is with the superheavyweight Olympians that we see the most impressive political activity. 1960 Olympic gold medalist Yuri Vlasov sat in the Russian Congress of People’s deputies. Leonid Zhabotinsky, the champion from 1964 and 1968, served in his State Duma. 1972 and 1978 winner Vasily Alekseyev also served in the Duma as a People’s Deputy. Gold medalist in 1988 and 1992 Alexander Kurlovich has served in the upper chamber of the Belarus parliament. Very impressive.

This concentration of former Eastern European champions bears some sort of commentary. Democracy is still a new thing over there, but perhaps their political wholesaler teams have already learned the importance of name recognition to their electorates. I guess the big difference between our part of the world and theirs is that a weightlifter’s name will likely be recognized over there. Not here, unfortunately.

Athletes in Politics Can Help Society Change

This all led me to wonder what it would be like if we could get more weightlifters elected in our part of the world. Apart from Ms. Lassen, I do not think that we are going to ever see a lot of weightlifters take to the chambers, but I am still optimistic in other ways. As more and more people in society have at least a brief run at weight training sometime in their lives, some of those people may become politicians. Hopefully they will have learned the importance of physical fitness to not only themselves, but the rest of society. This will make them more amenable to any policies that can help society in this regard.

While it is nice to have big-name athletes propounding the cause of physical fitness, it is probably even more important to have people with the same ideals in government. All the better if they are inspired, not just by the great and famous, but also by their own experience of how they improved their lives with sensible physical training.

It has often been said that the Millennial generation is significantly less physically fit than their parents and grandparents. Lazy habits and passive entertainment have become a way of life, leading us into a generation of children with physical problems unheard of in times past. In order to fight this, we have to take inspiration not only from those star athletes we admire but also from those parents, friends, and neighbors who will, in the final analysis, serve as our best examples of a fit lifestyle.

In the meantime, as they say, vote as you please but please vote. Then stop off at the gym on your way home.

Time for a more interesting contest than politics:

The Greatest Olympian: Bolt or Phelps?