Olympians in High Places

Friday, February 2, 2018

Showing once again that sports can bridge even the most serious political divisions, Kim Jong Un and North Korea have agreed to march as a unified team with South Korea at the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. While it may be unusual for North Korea to engage in constructive dialogue, it is not unusual for authoritarian regimes to place value on Olympic participation and success, and no doubt the North Korean regime has visions of glory. Given Kim Jong Un’s alleged athletic prowess, it would be interesting to know whether he requested a chance to compete. After all, this is a man whose acolytes claim shot an 18 on an 18-hole golf course. It remains unclear whether he was able to retrieve his ball from the clown’s mouth at the end.

The amusing thought of Kim Jong Un in the Olympics made me wonder, however, how many heads of state have been Olympians. While none have competed while in office, there have been at least eight heads of state and one head of government—five sailors and one each from the sports of fencing, weightlifting, shooting and bobsledding. They all performed very credibly. 

Prince Albert of Monaco has the distinction of being the only winter Olympian among the heads of state, as well as having competed in more Olympiads than any of the others, piloting Monaco’s bobsled in five Olympics between 1988 and 2002. There have been two father/son Olympian combinations, all of whom competed in sailing: the current King of Spain, Felipe VI (1992), and his father King Juan Carlos I (1972); and King Harald V of Norway (1964, 1968 and 1972) and his father King Olav V (1928). Matching King Harald V, Marcus Stephen—a former president of Nauru who competed in weightlifting in 1992, 1996 and 2000—also competed in three Games. Interestingly, Stephen represented Samoa in 1992 (before Nauru had its own Olympic program) and then Nauru, making him the only head of state who has competed for another state. 

Surprisingly, one-third of these ruler-Olympians won gold: King Olav V in 1928, Konstantinos II of Greece in 1960 (also sailing) and the man who must be regarded as the most successful Olympian head of state, Pál Schmitt, the former president of Hungary, who won in fencing in 1968 and 1972. He and Prince Albert went on to serve many years with the IOC and other sporting bodies, as did Konstantinos II to a lesser extent.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, the one head of government in this group, rounds out the field, having competed in skeet shooting in Montreal in 1996.

Thus, in the highly unlikely event Kim Jong Un does have a chance to test his mettle in Pyeongchang, the bar has been set pretty high by his nine predecessors. However, for a man who once shot an 18 in golf, completing a 1440-degree maneuver in snowboarding’s halfpipe may not be a problem. 

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