“Barring a few exceptions, they were all introduced on the political horizon as “bold and big game-changers”. Finding their wings clipped and sans all powers, they attempted to walk free, only to end up as “loners” and “failures”. What they did on playfields, they could not repeat even one per cent of that in politics. It is all the more intriguing that Indian sports is mired much deeper in politics than the politics of running the world’s biggest liberal democracy. But our sports personalities have failed on that front, too”, says the author.
Politics in sports and sportspersons in politics are two diverse, interesting and highly debatable issues. The emergence of former Test cricketer Imran Khan on the global political scenario has again activated an animated discussion on whether sportspersons make better politicians or not. Never before in the world has a Test cricketer been chosen to lead a country tormented by internal strife, economic turndown, corruption and armed conflict.
For a sportsperson, building a career in politics on his athletic legacy may not be easy unless he has a high popularity profile, as the shift from the peak of being a sports celebrity to a political bigwig may not be possible without a deluge of publicity and unconditional support from the rank and file of the political outfit he intends to head or lead.
There have been lots of Olympians and cricketing heroes who wandered into politics and made a name for themselves. Sportspersons-turned-politicians have held limelight all over, including the US, England, Australia, Canada, Japan, India.
Sprinters Ralph Metcalfe and Jim Ryun, cagers Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen, decathlete Bob Mathias and judoka Nighthorse had successful innings in US politics after successful years in sports.
Richard Charlesworth of Australia belongs to the rare category of people who excelled not only in more than one sport but also hogged limelight and honor as a trainer, a coach and politician. A Test cricketer, Olympic hockey gold medalist and MP, all made one Richard Charlesworth.
Then there is Australian aboriginal Nova Perry, an Olympic gold medalist in hockey and Commonwealth Games gold medalist in athletics. She became the first indigenous woman to be elected to the Australian Parliament and later to the Senate.
Ryoko Tami of Japan, a renowned judoka, who won silver in the Barcelona Olympic Games and gold medals in Sydney and Athens and a bronze in Beijing, turned to politics at the end of her career in sports. She won a seat in the House of Councilors of Japan.
Before Imran Khan made it to the Pakistan National Assembly, his contemporaries in sports — Sarfraz Nawaz (cricket) and Akhtar Rasool (hockey) — also sat in the Punjab provincial Assembly and held ministerial posts.
India has a longer history of sportspersons in politics. There have been numerous instances of eminent sportspersons joining politics, both at the state and national levels. Olympian Jaipal Singh (hockey), Raja Karni Singh, Chetan Chauhan, Kirti Azad, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar, Aslam Sher Khan, Mohammed Azharuddin, Pargat Singh, Dilp Tirkey and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore are some of the stalwarts, who after or during their innings in sports, dabbled in politics. Their entry was either through established political parties or as independents.
Kirti Azad (BJP) is a senior politician. His long innings in cricket and then in politics almost brought him to the brink for alleging wrongdoings in the DDCA.
Why are sports stars damp squibs in politics? Or are they content with just a membership of Parliament or state assemblies?
Athens Olympic medalist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Test cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu may be exceptions. Rathore is a part of the Modi ministry. His portfolio is sports. Sidhu is a minister in Punjab. But his portfolio does not include sports.
It is more than a question of political rehabilitation for those leaving sports and opting for a new career. If politicians are not welcome to national sports federations, how can sports stars expect a warm welcome or assimilation in political administration, is a vexed question.
The last election to the 15th Punjab Vidhan Sabha was, however, different as not only a large number of sportspersons, but also bureaucrats, technocrats, artistes, singers, academicians, journalists and realtors evinced a keen interest in politics.
Besides Sidhu (cricket) and Olympian Pargat Singh (hockey), who were successful in the last Punjab Assembly elections, Asian Games gold medalist Kartar Singh (wrestling), Sajjan Singh Cheema (Olympian, basketball) and Gulzar Singh (kabaddi) were in the fray, while several others, including Olympians Surinder Singh Sodhi and Hardeep Singh Grewal and internationals Jagdeep Singh Gill and Asian Games gold medalist Rajbir Kaur Rai (all hockey), did not get a chance to enter electoral politics.
In all previous instances, sportspersons may have stirred a hornet’s nest here and there, but in the long run, their actions have remained far too small to impact national or provincial politics.
Barring a few exceptions, they were all introduced on the political horizon as “bold and big game-changers”. Finding their wings clipped and sans all powers, they attempted to walk free, only to end up as “loners” and “failures”. What they did on playfields, they could not repeat even one per cent of that in politics. It is all the more intriguing that Indian sports is mired much deeper in politics than the politics of running the world’s biggest liberal democracy. But our sports personalities have failed on that front, too.
One may not be able to name a sport that is free from politics. Political affiliations apart, sports administrators defy rules, regulations and guidelines to monopolize state and national sports associations. Governments come and go, but our sports politicians, who have perfected the art of staying in office irrespective of the political party in power, remain indispensable.
It is but natural to ponder that if our sports are so deep into politics, why sports personalities have been generally non-performers on the political scenario.
(The author is a Chandigarh based senior journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])