Australia’s “Ironman” opposition leader kicks off fitness debate
Move aside Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.
Putin, Russia’s bare-chested macho man, and marathon fan Obama are not anywhere near Australia’s new opposition leader Tony Abbott, who has entered the ranks of ultra iron men, kickstarting a debate about leadership and fitness in the process.
Abbott, 52, this weekend finished the Ironman Australia triathlon, swimming 3.8 kilometres (2.3 miles), cycling 180 kilometres and then running a 42-kilometre road marathon in just under 14 hours of extreme sporting prowess.
Fuelled by chocolate chip muesli bars, hot cross buns and smoked salmon and avocado sandwiches, as well as water and sports drinks, Abbott described the gruelling race and strong crowd support throughout as “exhilarating”.
“(Former prime minister) John Howard was described as a man of steel by George Bush. Margaret Thatcher was the iron lady of British politics. Why shouldn’t Australian politics have an ironman?” Abbott found the energy to quip afterwards.
But his entry into the event, and a planned nine-day charity bike ride from Melbourne to Sydney in just a few more weeks, has triggered a debate in his sport-obsessed homeland about how much fitness is a good thing for an aspiring political leader, or anyone else.
“At some point in that ride he risks turning his passion for exercise into a caricature,” said ABC Political Editor Chris Uhlmann.
“I think he should be spending a lot more time working on policy,” Treasurer Wayne Swan said ahead of Abbott’s race, warning politics should be close to all-consuming. “Essentially you have got to work from dawn to dusk,” Swan said.
Abbott should do “less pec-buffing”, one headline said. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner said the muscle most in need of workout was Abbott’s brain.
Australia will hold elections later this year and with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s opinion poll support sliding since Abbott’s December ascension as conservative leader, the former Oxford champion boxer’s fitness regime is a new avenue of attack.
“I don’t think it’s something I should stop doing just because I’ve got a different job,” Abbott said.
Conservative politics aside, Abbott would probably have an ally in U.S. President Obama, who ran a marathon on the campaign trial and who mixes gym routines with basketball court time.
Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush had a penchant for mountain-biking, peddling into forests north of Sydney in 2007, while Bill Clinton went on three-mile jogs through Washington’s National Mall, accompanied by secret service agents on bikes.
The 34th U.S President Dwight Eisenhower averaged one game of golf for every three days during his eight years in the White House, fitting in more than 800 rounds at some of America’s most prestigious courses, including his favourite, Augusta.
Abbott is keen to show a different face, and physique, to Rudd, who has been forced into a diet and gym regime to fight an expanded waistline since winning elections in 2007.
Visiting outback Broken Hill, Rudd congratulated Abbott and said he would “probably collapse on the first leg”.
In the end, Abbott finished the race in 1186th place, out of 1,500 after 13 hours, 57 minutes and one second.
The debate about how much time he and other leaders should spend on the fitness trail will go on much longer.