Turkey’s Erdogan joins club of world leaders who win at sports


Turkey's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan kicks the ball during an exhibition soccer match Saturday, July 26 , 2014, after the opening ceremony for a new stadium named after Turkey coach Fatih Terim, in Istanbul.  (AP Photo/Kayhan Ozer, Turkish Prime Minister's Press Office)

This weekend, Turkey's demagogic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan found a new way to burnish his credentials and state his authority. He donned cleats and an eye-catching orange jersey and took the field alongside other politicians and celebrities at the opening ceremony of a soccer stadium in Istanbul. And he scored goals -- three of them, in fact -- in the space of 15 minutes.

It's not a totally surprising feat: the Turkish premier, 60, is a passionate soccer fan and played competitively in his youth. He finishes his strikes with admirable aplomb. But it is amusing to watch some of the circumstances of the hat-trick: note how the defenders slow down ahead of his first goal, how wildly offside he is before chipping in his second (a very nice left-footed shot, to be fair), and how the goalkeeper makes no effort whatsoever to thwart his third.

It may be wise to let the prime minister have his way here. Erdogan has been in power for over a decade and has radically transformed Turkish politics, despite the protests of a growing and vociferous opposition. Erdogan's term is set to end, but he does not plan on stepping down. At the game, he wore the number 12 on his jersey: presidential elections are to be held in August and he intends to be Turkey's 12th president. Earlier in the day, he had been campaigning in Turkey's southeast.

Erdogan is hardly the only domineering politico to show off at a sporting event. Some suggest Erdogan would like to emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose tight grip over his country's politics looks ironclad. He certainly did not match Putin's recent performance at a charity ice hockey event, where the Russian leader, known for his athletic pursuits, scored six goals and assisted five others.

But neither Erdogan nor Putin can match the ceaseless sporting prowess of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the self-styled "Protector" -- in truth, dictator -- of the isolated Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. According to his own government Web site, Berdimuhamedov devotes "half of his day off to sports." He enters high-speed car races (and wins). He is a champion both at taekwondo and at cycling. And he loves horse-riding and equestrian competitions -- perhaps too much.

In 2013, footage emerged of Berdimuhamedov competing during an official race. He is in the lead until he takes a dramatic, scary fall. The enthusiastic announcer's commentary peters out and onlooking attendants rush in terror toward his hunched body.

Berdimuhamedov recovered from the mishap and state media went on to hail him the race's victor and winner of $11 million purse, which he donated to the country's "horse fund." But the panic it inspired -- as well as the reported news blackout in his home country -- showed how fraught such moments are when politics are so intertwined with cults of personality. For autocrats, sport is never only fun and games.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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