The following is Bent Knees and Raised Fists first foray into world politics. The intersection between sports and politics is, indeed, a worldwide phenomenon, and we are excited to include coverage from writers beyond the borders of the United States. This piece, by Ashraf Engineer, is a follow-up to our earlier post, “Made to Play the Game.” Here, Ashraf explores the phenomenon of former athletes who become politicians in Asia. -RC

Star power is not new in Asian politics. Prominent personalities across realms, from films to business, have made the transition and sportspersons are no exceptions. A virtual galaxy of stars from diverse disciplines have dived into the region’s politics, becoming parliamentarians, ministers and even heads of government. These disciplines range from cricket to boxing, hockey, shooting and even wrestling.

Take Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Born in a wealthy family of Pashtuns, the country’s dominant ethnic group, he moulded a ragtag group of cricketers into world-beaters, becoming one of the finest players the game has seen. His legendary status grew further after he came out of retirement to lead a team written off by most to victory in the world championship.

Imran - Wikimedia Commons
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is a cricketing demigod in Pakistan, but his pandering to religious extremists has concerned many. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Khan, who studied in Lahore, Worcester and Oxford, was considered a global playboy with little interest in religion or politics. Imran became the torchbearer of his family’s cricketing heritage – his cousins Javed Burki Majid Khan also played for Pakistan – when he debuted internationally at age 18 in 1971. By the time he retired in 1992, with the World Cup final in Australia being his last game, he was an icon and considered one of the finest captains ever. At the time, his greatest passion was a cancer hospital he was building in memory of his late mother, who had perished to the disease.

Khan had been offered political positions by Pakistan ruler Zia-ul-Haq in 1987 and later by Nawaz Sharif, who has been prime minister himself. Khan declined each time. It was only after the World Cup win that he showed interest, starting off as a liberal but then increasingly leaning towards the right. In 1996, he established his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, or the Pakistan Justice Party. He was elected to Parliament in 2002 and briefly imprisoned for his criticism of the rule of General Pervez Musharraf. On his release he vowed to fight against the endemic corruption in government, eventually winning a mandate in mid-2018 and taking oath as the country’s 22nd prime minister. Since then, Khan has presided over a volatile state rocked by terrorism and growing hostilities with India.

His statements and policies are in sharp contrast to his background – he has pandered to the the religious right wing and is seen to be soft on extremists. This doesn’t bode well for the country or the region. Khan would do well to remember that integrating with the rest of the world and infusing more liberties into society is what will alleviate the country’s raging poverty.

From pitch to politics

Cricket is a virtual religion in the Indian subcontinent, often uniting diverse populations and used as a diplomatic tool by countries.

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Former India cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu has been a Member of Parliament and is now focusing his politics on his home state of Punjab.

India has seen numerous cricketers turning to politics. India’s greatest cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, was a member of the upper house of Parliament even as an active sportsperson (his record, however, was dismal – marked by frequent absenteeism and little participation). Explosive opening batsman Navjot Singh Sidhu was elected to Parliament on a Hindutva supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket and later moved to the centrist Congress party hoping to play a larger role in his home state of Punjab. A colourful character who passes off homespun rhymes as wisdom, he has also been a TV host for several years. Kirti Azad, part of India’s 1983 World Cup winning squad, hails from a political family – his father, Bhagwat Jha Azad, was chief minister of Bihar province – and was a multiple term Member of Parliament for the BJP before switching to the Congress. Another opening batsman, Gautam Gambhir, was recently elected to Parliament on a BJP ticket. The list goes on and on.

In Sri Lanka, World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga was elected to Parliament and has served as minister of industry, tourism and investment as well as of highways, ports and shipping. Another Sri Lankan batting great, Sanath Jayasuriya, won his election with a record margin, going on to become minister of postal services as well as of local government and rural development.

But it’s not just cricket. Hockey stalwart Pargat Singh has been a member of the Punjab state assembly in India while wrestlers Babita Phogat and Yogeshwar Dutt both tried their luck – unsuccessfully – in the recent elections in India’s Haryana province. Olympic medal winning shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a Parliamentary election and has been a central minister too.

Stories matter

In a broader Asian context, Manny Pacquiao – one of the finest boxers ever, having won titles in eight divisions and 12 major world titles – is a god in the Philippines. His story is the stuff of legend – the fourth of six siblings, he dropped out of school due to extreme poverty and left home at age 14 because his mother could not afford to support the entire family. He started boxing while living on the streets of Manila. His rise to glory and fame propelled him not only into politics but also into other sports such as basketball, and an acting career.

Manny Pacquiao - Wikimedia Commons
Manny Pacquiao is tipped by many to become President of the Philippines but his comments against the LGBT community and his support for the death penalty have disappointed many.

Pacquiao has won several elections and is currently a senator, with many believing he will become President some day. He has come out strongly in support of bringing capital punishment back to the Philippines and endorsed several politicians running for office in the US. His support for the death penalty has troubled many, leading to heated debates around the world between supporters and opponents of it. His remarks about the LGBT community – he called gay people “worse than animals – were shocking. As gay rights the world over are increasingly recognised and the community is mainstreamed, Pacquiao’s stand is a step backward – even if it’s just pandering to the conservatives.

Robina Muqimyar’s tale is as striking as Pacquiao’s. She represented Afghanistan in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics in the 100 metre sprint. One of nine children, Muqimyar was born in Kabul to a businessman, who now runs a non-profit that teaches Afghan women how to sew. Muqimyar was home-schooled during the Taliban era when girls were forbidden from attending school.

She got her first taste of the international spotlight when she competed wearing the hijab and because she was one of the first two women to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics. Eventually, Muqimyar ran for the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, in 2010 on a platform of equal rights for women and youth. If elected, she promised, she would make school athletics a priority. Though she lost the election, Muqimyar continues to remain an inspirational figure and an influential voice.

Why politics?

So, what draws sportspersons to politics and why do voters invest so much faith in them? It is often said that sport and politics ought to be separate, but that is naïve and has never been the case. Sport has played a role in diplomacy, international relations, gender movements and social dynamics. Sport is, in fact, a reflection of the world in which we exist. Sport has the unique ability to embrace billions; it can heal and divide depending upon how it is used. Seen through that lens, it’s hardly surprising that sportspersons play a role in politics and society.

Sport is, in the end, a societal subset and can never be disconnected from the rest of the human experience. As products of their time and context, sportspersons are political creatures like anyone else. And, just like any other group, they only add to the richness of our political and social conversations.

For further reading on the topics discussed in this article, click here.