The election of 1995 world footballer of the year George Weah as president of Liberia is just the sort of vulgar garlanding of athletic heroes we expect from foreigners.
They do it in Ukraine with former world heavyweight champion boxer Vitali Klitschko now mayor of Kyiv, while fellow pugilist Manny Pacquiao is a senator in his native Philippines. It would be no surprise to see either of them emulate Weah as a future head of government, something also craved in Pakistan by Imran Khan (the one-time son-in-law of a certain Referendum Party leader). Another cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar sits as an Indian Senator and in America – whose political system ensures fame and a private fortune are fairly helpful in running for office – there is no shortage of pro sportsmen on the hustings and even in the corridors of power.
In Britain, though, surely we are above that. While some prime ministers like sport, it’s hard to think of any of them playing it at a decent level, let alone professionally (with due respect to John Major’s off-drive).
But in fact a few athletic heroes have slipped through the net, snubbing the accepted post-playing career options of coaching, running a pub, pontificating on television, and alcoholism (or any combination of the above).
Obviously this is a phenomenon that begins in the 20th century and the rise of the mass following of increasingly professional sport. FS Jackson was not a professional cricketer (I would not put his initials before his name otherwise), but at Yorkshire he was one of the finest players of the 1890s and early 1900s, captaining England several times. After a distinguished military and successful business career (which precluded him from cricket tours), ‘Jacker’ – who had once had Winston Churchill as his fag at Harrow – became Conservative MP for Howdenshire in 1915, serving as financial secretary to the War Office before becoming governor of Bengal (he survived an assassination attempt in 1932 by sidestepping and ducking the shots like a beamer just outside off stump).
Cricket, which had Oxford and Cambridge University to act as virtual finishing schools for future England stars, naturally had a class of player that could slip sideways into politics – Alec Douglas-Home represented Middlesex among a number of first-class teams – though it has also produced some near-misses.
CB Fry, who as well as playing cricket for England also did so in football and excelled in athletics (as well as many non-sporting fields), but in the 1920s three times failed to be elected as a Liberal MP.* Later on, stylish batsman Ted Dexter delayed his departure on the MCC tour of South Africa in 1964 to challenge Jim Callaghan in Cardiff South East (he was as successful as he later proved as England chairman of selectors). Maybe their fate has put off others following in their footsteps, despite David Cameron reportedly trying to talk more recent cricketers Andrew Strauss and Darren Gough into standing for the Tories.
Another sport known as a bastion of Corinthian amateurism, athletics, has had more luck getting its practitioners on to the green benches. It is not that long, of course, since Olympic gold-medallist Sebastian Coe was MP for Falmouth and Camborne before becoming William Hague’s chief of staff as Conservative leader. Before him, Chris Chataway went from breaking the 5,000-metre world record, setting the pace for Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and being voted the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year to becoming Tory MP for Lewisham North in 1959 (when his fellow ITN newscaster Robin Day lost for the Liberals in Hereford) and a decade later in Chichester. He introduced commercial radio as Minister for Posts and Telecommunication and spoke out strongly against racism, calling for a sporting boycott of South Africa in his maiden speech. He was also working at Guinness in the 1950s when he suggested as editor for their proposed Book of Records former Scottish international runner and future unsuccessful Conservative candidate in Orpington, Norris McWhirter.
More famous as the brief leader of the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell held the British 100-metre sprint record for seven years, while novelist and perjurer Jeffrey Archer ran for Great Britain before his political career.
Unlike Coe, Chataway and Campbell, Archer never made it to the Olympics but his contemporary Colin Moynihan did, taking silver as cox of the rowing eights in 1980. By going to Moscow he defied Mrs Thatcher’s boycott, but it didn’t stop her making him minister of sport later in the decade when he was representing Lewisham East (a successor constituency to the one that first returned Chataway). Robin Dixon, aka Baron Glentoran, took two-man bobsleigh gold in 1964 and was later a Conservative shadow minister while Oswald Mosley represented Great Britain at fencing.
As for full team sports, one-time England rugby union winger Derek Wyatt had thirteen years as a Labour MP, but fewer practitioners of more proletarian pastimes have made it to the green benches – though former Hereford goalkeeper David Icke was a Green Party spokesman in the late 1980s and stood in the 2008 Haltemprice and Howden by-election, while ex-England defender Sol Campbell had a short-lived run to become Mayor of London. Conservative MP Douglas Ross is an international assistant referee, even if he has agreed to stop missing votes to officiate.
It seems that the history of sportspeople breaking into politics is mostly a story of male Conservatives, but Labour and the ladies are fighting back. Another future minister of sport, Kate Hoey, was Northern Irish high jump champion in 1966 (succeeded the following year by future Olympic pentathlon gold-medallist Mary Peters), while crossbench peer Baroness Grey-Thompson has 11 Paralympic titles.
Labour MPs Rachel Reeves and Angela Eagle were both British junior chess champions and, er, shadow minister Andrew Gwynne is the son of a famous darts commentator. Back in the day Labour were also keen to recruit famed football manager (and former prolific goalscorer) Brian Clough as a candidate, but instead it was the man who interviewed the freshly sacked Leeds United boss and his unimpressed predecessor Don Revie live on Yorkshire TV who was to win a seat for the people’s party: Austin Mitchell.
Granted none of these, even the 14th Earl of Home, were able to reach the very top in both sport and politics like Weah. Maybe it is a cultural issue: in France there is a tradition of sportspeople going into politics, for example, making it easier for each successive such switch to be taken serious. Countries which rely much more on individual means, rather than seeking conventional promotion through a party hierarchy – countries like the US, for example – also provide more fertile ground for well-known personalities from outside politics to rise to, dare we say, the very top.
Chataway suspected famed athletes were not quite taken seriously in Parliament, musing: ‘It’s not a fatal handicap being a sportsman but you do have to work that much harder to overcome it.’ Still, we can only speculate on how history would have panned out if Mrs May had truly dedicated herself to running through fields of wheat.
* He also claimed to have been offered the Kingship of Albania while assisting old Sussex team-mate Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji at the League of Nations in Geneva and unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Von Ribbentrop that the Nazis should make Germany a test cricket nation, perhaps producing a blond WG Grace. (For more, see his 1939 autobiography Life Worth Living – Some Phases of an Englishman, in which he does not hide his feeling that we could have been chums with Herr Hitler.)