Let it be known that Vitali Klitschko has the world’s firmest handshake. And these days, Klitschko is using his hand for more handshakes than knockouts: the world heavyweight boxing champion has emerged as Ukraine’s leading opposition politician. But if he’s elected president, how is he going to fix his stumbling home country? And how long does he plan to remain an elite boxer?
Klitschko, a towering – and, not surprisingly, extremely fit – 41-year-old, met Metro for an exclusive interview.
Q: Ukraine has had elections, it has a parliament. Is it a true democracy?
A: We’ve been trying to build a democracy in Ukraine for the past 20 years, but in the past couple of years we’ve slid backwards. The whole world talks about Ukrainian political prisoners, about Yulia Tymoshenko, about how President Yanukovich is running the country. I don’t support what has happened in the past couple of years. We have to dismantle the current system, build more opportunities for business, build a market economy and raise social standards. I want to show that democracy is the future of our country. And our country’s future is in the European family.
Q: But do you think democracy works in Ukraine? Your opinions are popular abroad, but at home…?
A: Yes, democracy works in Ukraine. And it works because we’re European. With our culture, history and geography, we’re Europeans. But when it comes to standards of living, we’re far away from Europe. Our main task as politicians is to change that situation. More than half of Ukrainians want to live in a democratic, European country. And of course every Ukrainian wants a higher standard of living. We have to make sure that everyone has access to work and decent pay. Right now the reality is totally different. People don’t have a job, they don’t see a future in Ukraine, they try to move to other countries. Today, almost six million Ukrainians live outside the country. 70% of young people want to leave the country because they don’t believe they have a future here.
Q: But isn’t it worrisome that Russia so often meddles in Ukraine?
A: It’s our biggest neighbor and biggest trading partner, and we have to build good relations with them, but without neglecting our national interest. We have to develop our relationship with Russia. But Russia and other European countries want to see Ukraine, the biggest country in Europe, have political and economic stability, because instability in Ukraine would be painful for all of Europe.
Q: Is Russia under Putin a true democracy?
A: You know the answer. It’s a different country with a different history and different realities. I want to talk about Ukraine.
Q: Boxing doesn’t seem all that important when a country’s future is at stake. Are you planning to set your boxing career aside?
A: Sport has always been in my heart and will remain there all my life. As a matter of fact, I use skills that I learned in boxing now that I’m in politics: responsibility, discipline, teamwork. My sports teacher told me, “If you want to be the best, you have to work with the best”. If you want to be the best boxer in the world, you take the best coach, the best manager, the best promoter, the best lawyer, and you’ll automatically be the best. It’s exactly the same in politics. If you want to be the best, you have to build the best team around you, because politics is teamwork.
Q: So you’ve got Ukraine’s best political team now?
A: I’ve built a team of young people: people with the same vision, the same dreams and are ready to invest their time, energy and skills for our country. But it wasn’t easy finding these people. Politicians have a bad reputation in Ukraine. They’re seen as cheaters and thieves.
Q: You said that boxing skills are useful in politics. I know you play chess. Are chess skills useful in boxing and politics as well?
A: You have to think 3-4-5 steps ahead and develop a strategy. It’s similar in boxing and politics. That’s why I like playing chess so much. I play it with my kids all the time. But these days I often have a hard time playing against my oldest son! He’s just 12, but he has a good teacher and makes me work very hard.
Q: You’re 41, which is not young for an athlete. On the other hand, Bernard Hopkins was 48 when he won his boxing champion’s title. Will this fact influence your decision about your boxing future?
A: I definitely don’t want to break Hopkins’s record. I feel young. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I’ve played sport all my life and feel good about my boxing skills. But it’s time to fight more seriously, against more difficult opponents and more ambitious goals. I’ve accomplished every dream I had in sport, and my dream now is to build a democratic Ukraine. This country has huge potential!
Q: There’s huge potential for other top athletes to contribute to their countries in a similar way. Do you think they should?
A: I’d say to them: Never forget where you’re from. I grew up in a simple neighborhood. We only had two pairs of boxing gloves for 20 boys. You had to wait a long time for your turn to use the gloves. That’s why I’ve helped build many playgrounds and gyms for underprivileged kids in Ukraine. In the streets they get used to alcohol and drugs, but we give them a chance to box and do other sports, develop themselves, get to know their bodies, set new goals for themselves and achieve those goals, and of course to stay healthy. I do this together with my brother Wladimir. There’s a German proverb that says, “If you get something, never forget to give back”. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Q: So sports can change Ukraine?
A: Nelson Mandela says that sport has the power to change the world. I believe in that. Sport changed my life, and I’m trying to give kids the same chance. Not everyone will be a top athlete, but it’s important for everyone to stay away from drugs and crime and to be healthy.