It can’t be easy, holding down a place in the Manchester United and England teams while also serving as de facto Deputy Prime Minister. But Marcus Rashford seems to be managing it. After the footballer’s high profile campaigns on free school meals and homelessness, we look at some of the other sports stars who swapped the pitch for politics.
Rashford’s predecessors in the world of soccer haven’t always focused on Lamborghinis and nightclubs. The Brazilian Socrates founded the Corinthians Democracy movement to oppose his country’s military government, while in 2014 his compatriot Romario went one stage further and got himself elected to the Brazilian senate.
In 1997 Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler was fined £900 for lifting his shirt during a game to reveal a T-shirt expressing sympathy with some sacked dockers (it was a spoof Calvin Klein design showing the word ‘doCKer’). But no one can beat George Weah, the ex-Chelsea and Manchester City star who in 2018 became president of his native Liberia. Unlike a lot of politicians, Weah puts his money where his mouth is. Even while he was still playing, he would often pay out of his own pocket for Liberia’s national football team to travel to matches abroad.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Perhaps the most famous political image in all sporting history is that of the American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. The pair had just won gold and bronze respectively in the 200 metres. But their iconic decision to wear single gloves was actually an accident. They’d intended to wear a complete pair each, but Carlos forgot to bring his along. The silver medallist, Australia’s Peter Norman, suggested they share Smith’s pair. This is why in the photograph, Carlos is raising his left fist and Smith his right.
Three decades previously, the black hero of American athletics had been Jesse Owens. His four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics infuriated Adolf Hitler (bit of a knock for the ‘supreme Aryan race’ theory), so the Fuhrer refused to congratulate him. But Owens’s anger was reserved not for the German leader but his own President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The sprinter, like the other black members of the US Olympic squad, failed to receive an invitation to the White House after the games. This was typical of the country’s segregation back then. New York’s Waldorf Astoria held a reception for Owens, but he wasn’t allowed to enter through the hotel’s main doors, instead having to ride in the freight elevator. Needless to say when the Democratic party asked for Owens’s support in the 1936 Presidential election, the athlete refused. Instead he endorsed Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Alf Landon.
Athletes on this side of the pond have tended to favour the conventional political route of entering parliament. Philip Noel-Baker, who won silver in the 1500 metres at the 1920 Olympics, served for many decades as a Labour MP and Cabinet minister. He was also awarded the 1959 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the only person to win both an Olympic medal and a Nobel prize. Another silver medallist-turned-MP is the Conservative Colin (now Lord) Moynihan, who at the 1980 Olympics coxed Britain’s rowing eight. During the race the rudder’s steering cables broke, meaning Moynihan had to reach backwards and turn the rudder by hand. His crew didn’t realise what had happened until afterwards.
But the most high-profile sporting parliamentarian has been Seb Coe (he likes a high profile). While he was an MP, the Olympic gold medallist served as an aide to then-Tory leader William Hague. Among his duties was taking part in thrice-weekly judo bouts with Hague. One day Hague maintained a neckhold for so long that Coe passed out. The worried leader gave Coe several slaps to the face, which managed to revive him. When Coe entered the House of Lords, he chose an appropriately-named part of Surrey for his title – he’s Baron Coe of Ranmore.
When it comes to political boxers, it’s hard to see past Muhammad Ali, who famously refused to serve in the US Army because ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’. But Ali never held office, unlike world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, who in 2014 secured election as mayor of Kiev. The 6’7” Ukrainian says politics is much harder than boxing: ‘In politics there are no rules. It’s hitting you in the back. It’s hitting you under the belt line. It’s really tough.’ He stays in shape by getting to the gym at six o’clock every morning, and is in the office by nine. When Kiev hosted the 2018 Champions League final, Klitschko rang his opposite number, the mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson, to tease him about not making the trip to watch Liverpool play in the match. Anderson, you see, is an Everton fan.
Cricket’s political stardom has been hogged by Imran Khan, who since 2018 has been president of Pakistan. The role sees him liase with London’s Metropolitan Police to help combat terrorism, which is a happy coincidence for head of the Met Cressida Dick, who has been an admirer of Khan since 1972. As an 11-year old girl she saw him playing cricket at Oxford University – indeed she wrote him his first ever fan letter.
If David Cameron had been given his way, Darren Gough would have stood as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Barnsley (the bowler burst out laughing and refused the invitation point blank). Ted Dexter, on the other hand, did offer himself to the voters of Cardiff South-East at the 1964 general election. The England captain stood for the Tories against Labour incumbent James Callaghan, saying that if elected he would stand down from that winter’s tour of South Africa. Insisting that he was ‘not just a gimmick’, Dexter advised his potential constituents to consider sending their sons to Eton. The school didn’t just qualify you for politics or merchant banking, he said – several Old Etonians of his acquaintance had become ‘racing correspondents and bookmakers’. Callaghan’s majority increased from 868 to nearly 8,000.
England’s three-quarter line
Showing that sports stars sometimes get involved in the darker political arts, several of England’s rugby team of the 1930s acted as minders to Oswald Mosley during his leadership of the New Party (forerunner of the British Union of Fascists). The players were known as ‘the Biff Boys’.