Archive for Sunday, October 31, 2004

Ex-athletes prove sports, politics mix

October 31, 2004


The knees, hips and ankles still are holding up.

Jim Ryun is thankful for that at 57, a generation removed from the days when he held the world record in the mile. He also knows how foolish it would be to time himself on the track now.

"I think I'd have to use a sundial instead of a stopwatch," he says.

Ryun tries to run every day, but finds that hard to do during a campaign. He is up for re-election Tuesday, seeking a fifth term in Congress as a representative from Kansas.

Ryun's track exploits are practically legend in his home state, but he insists his aura of celebrity is balanced by the fact that he has lived in his district, and his children have gone to school there.

"I've had the experience of letting them see me as who I am," he told the Associated Press between campaign stops.

Ryun is among a few big-name sports figures going before voters. Also up for re-election in Congress are two fellow Republicans -- Rep. Tom Osborne of Nebraska, the former coach of powerful Cornhusker football teams, and Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, the Hall of Fame pitcher.

Bunning is going for a second term in the Senate after a dozen years in the House. His big lead has eroded amid gaffes and editorials questioning his mental fitness at 73.

Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a one-time Olympic judo competitor, is retiring from the Senate. Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a former Olympic speedskater, chose not to run again.

President Bush, of course, is a former owner of the Texas Rangers, although his foray into baseball was hardly his springboard to the national stage.

Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University and author of "Celebrity Politics," says voters are willing to pull the lever for ex-jocks, who bring important assets to their new line of work.

"Athletes have many attributes of successful politicians," he says. "They're in the public eye, used to dealing with the media. Their thick skins help them overcome their critics."

But the sports figure-turned-politician is bolstered by something even more valuable. He -- and it's predominantly men who have jumped from the sports arena to the political arena -- already is a familiar face before hitting the campaign trail.

"The advantage for the candidate is name recognition and visibility and the cult of personality," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The disadvantage is the image of the athlete as not very thoughtful."

Two years ago, Steve Largent, a former congressman and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, lost his race to become Oklahoma governor. His candidacy underlined a fact of life for the celebrity venturing into politics. A marquee name, be it in sports or entertainment, carries only so much weight.

"It's true for all pedigrees, not just sport," Kohut says. "There have been successful and unsuccessful actors, like any election."

George Unseld, a basketball player at Kansas University in the 1960s and brother of Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, is up for re-election on the Louisville (Ky.) Metro Council.

Kohut contends this dash of star power looks good on a political resume and boosts fund-raising and opinion polls, but the limits are clear.

"In the end," he says, "they're judged the way all candidates are."

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