Vitali Klitschko illustrates leadership comes from more than sports

Written By BY RICK MORRISSEY Sports Columnist Posted: 03/09/2014, 03:52pm
Array Vitali Klitschko, former Ukrainian boxer turned politician and head of the Ukrainian UDAR (PUNCH) party, addresses a meeting in Paris on March 7, 2014. Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after the West warned of sanctions and pro-Kremlin gunmen blocked a foreign observer mission aimed at defusing tensions in Crimea. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARDKENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Vitali Klitschko’s awesome nickname as a boxer, ‘‘Dr. Ironfist,’’ wouldn’t seem to be a handle you’d want if you were a possible presidential candidate. Certainly not in Ukraine, which has lived under the heavy hand of an unyielding government for years.

But the nickname fits perfectly as the opposition leader and his countrymen dig in against Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is trying to grab Crimea from Ukraine.

As anti-government protesters stood their ground in January in Independence Square in Kiev, Klitschko spoke to them more like Mel Gibson in ‘‘Braveheart’’ than ‘‘Dr. Ironfist.’’

‘‘Tomorrow we will go forward together,’’ he said. ‘‘And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead.’’

Do Ukrainians follow Klitschko because the former heavyweight champion never was knocked down in 47 pro fights? Do they find strength in his strength? Those questions raise broader ones for those of us who enjoy sports:

Do athletes make better leaders than non-athletes do? Is there a connection between sports and leadership? Or are we simply idealizing sports and the lessons they teach?

Coaches forever are trying to create leaders, and we in the media forever are trying to help. Can Player X be a leader? What can Player Z do to become more of a leader? Who is captain material?

The bottom line is that sports don’t make leaders; sports make leaders obvious. That’s true of many of the athletes who have gone on to elected office: Bill Bradley, Ralph Metcalfe, Gerald Ford, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kevin Johnson and Dave Bing, among many others.

It’s true of Bulls center Joakim Noah. You can’t teach his infectiousness. Noah cares about his team; you can’t fake that. Other athletes know a fraud in about two seconds. Noah is real, which is why his teammates follow him.

Competitiveness, resilience and confidence are traits that can carry over into an athlete’s post-retirement career. But are they exclusive to athletes? Our sports-crazy culture certainly wants us to think so, but they are not.

In the context of this discussion, one thing stands out about Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived deprivation and degradation after his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean during World War II: She never overtly tries to make a connection between Zamperini’s sports background and his ability to stay alive. Perhaps that’s because there were hundreds of other Americans who survived prisoner-of-war camps who hadn’t played sports.

Yet there’s no doubt Zamperini was a leader. He was the one who got everyone organized when it was clear their airplane was going to crash. He was the one who came up with ways to catch fish and repair the raft as he and two other men drifted for days in the Pacific.

Zamperini took part in distance running, an individual sport — just like boxing was for Klitschko. Can sports teach you about leadership if you don’t play a team sport? Who is there to lead?

In this corner of the world, we sports journalists often write admiringly about athletes who have experienced the death of a loved one or who have survived a disease. The message is clear: These people hurt more nobly than we non-elite athletes do, and they survive more bravely than the rest of us. One problem with the message: It’s just not true. We all have pain in our lives, and we all try to muddle through. It’s called being human.

For every Joe Delaney, the Chiefs running back who died while heroically trying to save three children from drowning in 1983, there’s a bus driver who rescues special-needs children from a burning bus, as happened Thursday in Minnesota. Was the bus driver a former athlete, or did his bravery come from somewhere else?

Although sports can teach lessons that last a lifetime, there are many successful public leaders who didn’t play sports. Do sports help? Absolutely, but they’re not the answer to every success story. They teach discipline, but so does mastering a musical instrument.

According to Putin’s website, judo helped make him into the man he is today.

‘‘Vladimir Putin firmly believes that martial arts teach such knowledge, abilities and skills that every politician needs,’’ the website says. ‘‘Putin believes that judo trains both your body and your mind.’’

Do we thank sports for Klitschko and blame them for Putin? I’m confused.

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