Jumping from sports to politics

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

The knees, hips and ankles are still 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's 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 by phone from Lawrence, Kan., 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 is already 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.''

West suggests the stereotype of the athlete as all brawn and no brain might not be a detriment.

''They're helped because it keeps expectations low,'' he says. ''If they're in a debate and do halfway well, it works to their advantage.''

Ryun was almost apologetic about his track heritage when entering Congress in 1996. He kept his office free of sports memorabilia until his family finally convinced him he didn't have to hide that part of his life.

''My kids said, 'Come on, Dad, you've got to put some pictures up,''' he recalls.

Ryun is an ardent conservative who speaks openly about his faith. He won nearly two-thirds of the vote two years ago.

Caught in the shadow of Ryun's high-wattage celebrity is his Democratic opponent. Nancy Boyda, whose background is research and development in the pharmaceutical industry, is making her first bid for office.

She may have bicycled across Kansas nine times, but she never competed in three Olympics or won a silver medal at 1,500 meters. Now she's taking on an icon in her state.

''He's a nice enough man,'' she said in an interview from her Topeka home. ''He's an Olympic hero and I don't ever want to take that away. I love Kansas. But he's not representing the 2nd District of Kansas well.''

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.''

In Congress in recent years, those athletes who have crossed into politics for the most part have been conservative. Two notable exceptions are ex-basketball stars Bill Bradley in the Senate and Tom McMillen in the House, both no longer in office.

While the regimentation and discipline of sports might suggest an easy explanation for such leanings, West offers another possibility.

''Athletes tend to be instant millionaires they've made a lot of money fast,'' he says. ''They go into shock when they see how much in taxes is taken out of their paycheck.''

Tuesday's roster features others from sports.

Arizona's Rick Renzi, a former Northern Arizona football star, and Indiana's Baron Hill, once a top basketball player at Furman, are seeking re-election to the House. Scott Paterno, the son of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, faces a difficult test in Pennsylvania against six-term Democratic incumbent Tim Holden. Jon Jennings, a former Boston Celtics scout, is backed by Larry Bird in his challenge for an Indiana congressional seat.

Outside Capitol Hill, Minnesota Vikings great Alan Page is trying to keep the Minnesota Supreme Court post he's held since 1993. Dick Ambrose, a former NFL linebacker, is running for county judge in Ohio. He hands out cards with a picture of him in his Cleveland Browns uniform on one side and a photo of him in judicial robes on the other.

George Unseld, a basketball player at Kansas 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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