Saddam Urges Iraqis to Swim. What’s Up With That?

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, March 7. NOW we know why Saddam Hussein has been so reluctant to go into exile in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Mauritania, or some other Middle Eastern or North African garden spot: not enough pools!

Apparently, the Iraqi dictator is sold on swimming to build strength and stamina. According to a story in today's Sydney Morning Herald, the Butcher of Baghdad has been urging his soldiers to swim at least two to three hours a day.

A recent television news story pictured Saddam, himself, swimming in the Euphrates, surrounded, of course, by squads of his ubiquitous bodyguards.

Saddam favors the Mao-stroke: head out of water (right down to the mustache). I've seen the same stroke at the local Y and JCC. It's favored by older women who want a vigorous workout while keeping their hair dry and not messing their "do." All Saddam needs to complete the picture is don a shower cap. Then he'll be ready to rumble!

Speaking of Mao, why is it that so many dictators like to swim? What's up with that? Chairman Mao Zedong (formerly Mao Tse-tung), of course, still holds the world record in the 5-mile swim. A quarter century ago, he swam 5 miles in 25 minutes — that's 5 minutes per mile.

And he did it swimming breaststroke! Head out of water, but no shower cap. Five minutes per mile.

Eat your heart out, Grant Hackett!!

Of course, Mao's swim was done swimming downstream in the Yangtze. Reportedly, he also had his own hand-picked timers, who were told in advance that his time would be 25 minutes.

(Frankly, I'm skeptical about Mao's claim. If he could really swim that fast in his seventies, why did he go through that Long March when he was much younger. Why not just do a faster — and more hygienic — Long Swim?)

Then there's Idi Amin Dada, former dictator of Uganda. One of the most brutal men ever to wield power, Idi (and his numerous wives) lives in luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia, America's ally in the war on terrorism. Hey, maybe he's built his own 50 meter pool and can sell Saddam a membership.

Some years back, Idi declared himself the world's greatest swimmer and challenged any swimmer in the world to a race, offering riches to anyone who could beat him. This is true. I'm not making it up.

Reportedly, several Olympians were interested, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor, due to the Ugandan dictator's unfortunate habit of eating those who oppose him.

Of course, it's not only dictators among political leaders who like to swim. John F. Kennedy swam for Harvard and continued to swim as president to manage his back pain. FDR swam for similar reasons. Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard and swimmer as a young man, and George W. Bush went through Tex Robertson's famous swim camp as a youngster and still swims for exercise when he's at the U.T. campus in Austin.