David Owen

This is a column about longevity, political and personal.

Shinzō Abe, whose state funeral was held in Tokyo today, was sadly not destined to enjoy a particularly long life: he was assassinated in July at the age of just 67.

But he has the distinction of being Japan’s longest-serving elected leader, holding the Prime Minister's office for well over eight years in total, and from late-2012 all the way through until September 2020 in his second stint.

He used this time partly to become a very close friend of the Olympic Movement.

I remember, in Buenos Aires in 2013, how he helped to drag the Tokyo bid over the line by allaying IOC members' concerns about the Fukushima nuclear accident, at a time when many observers thought the rival Istanbul bid would win.

He also famously appeared, again in South America, at the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremony dressed as Nintendo game character Super Mario.

Even though COVID eventually ruined Tokyo 2020 as a live event for on-the-spot spectators, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) managed to emerge with its revenues largely intact.

Abe's long, and ultimately divisive, term in office had finally ended several months before the delayed Games were able to take place.

The state funeral of Shinzō Abe was held in Tokyo today ©Getty Images
The state funeral of Shinzō Abe was held in Tokyo today ©Getty Images

It seems fitting, nevertheless, that the location for today’s solemn event - the Budokan arena - has served, among many other things, as an Olympic venue.

I have little doubt that personal memories of some of these moments must have flashed through Thomas Bach's mind as he attended today's event with other VIPs.

The German lawyer's election as IOC President, on 10 September 2013, came just days after Tokyo had secured the Games at the same IOC Session.

Bach is only the ninth IOC President in 128 years.

The same period has seen, at a rough count, more than 70 changes of Japanese PM.

This illustrates to my mind not how wisely the IOC has chosen its leaders, but how much harder it is to remain in the saddle in the ever more frenzied rodeo of western-style democracy.

IOC leaders have only to secure a majority of around 100 comfortably-off, often self-satisfied colleagues over whom moreover an incumbent President has all manner of levers with which to help curry support.

It is a very different matter to retain the respect of millions of ordinary voters, for whom you are usually the obvious scapegoat when things go wrong.

Japan is by no means unique in getting through its Prime Ministers at the rate of one every two years or less.

My country, the United Kingdom, has rattled through four in just over six years.

Giorgia Meloni is poised to become Italy's first female Prime Minister ©Getty Images
Giorgia Meloni is poised to become Italy's first female Prime Minister ©Getty Images

Over the 128-year span of the modern Olympic Movement, however, probably no Western European country can match the Prime Minister-jettisoning record of Italy.

Again, I hesitate to be too precise, but by my count the country of Fellini and La Scala has switched PM approximately 68 times since 1894 - and that includes more than 20 years under Benito Mussolini.

I think it was the late Frank Johnson who once joked in print that the man no-one knew at a G7 Summit was the Italian Prime Minister because the holder of the post changes so often.

At another G7 Summit, the organisers had the idea of producing stylish leather souvenir wallets embossed with the congregating leaders’ names.

The only snag - you guessed it - was that a new Italian PM was installed just days ahead of the prestigious meeting.

Why am I banging on about Italian politics in this context?

Because, in another major item of international news this week, the Italians contrived to hand a decisive electoral victory to a politician from the far right, namely Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni.

The 45-year-old is now expected to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister.

Matteo Renzi, left, was outed as Prime Minister shortly after Rome's bid for the 2024 Olympics collapsed ©Stratos Safioleas
Matteo Renzi, left, was outed as Prime Minister shortly after Rome's bid for the 2024 Olympics collapsed ©Stratos Safioleas

A far-right figure could therefore it seems be the country’s political leader at the time of the Milan Cortina 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, and looks highly likely in any case to be involved in preparations for the event.

This so soon after we liberal sports fans were forced to fret - needlessly, as it turned out - over the possibility of Marine Le Pen being ensconced as President of France at the time of the Paris 2024 Summer Games.

Then again, as already established, Italian politics is a volatile beast and Milan Cortina 2026 is still more than three years away.

Meloni’s staying-power as premier would have to be well above average for her to hang onto the job until February 6 2026, scheduled opening date for the Games.

Of recent Italian Prime Ministers, only Silvio Berlusconi has managed to cling on for that long.

The impressive Matteo Renzi, whom I had the pleasure of meeting six years ago in Rio, at a time when Rome looked to have a decent chance of landing the 2024 Games, was ousted a few months later.

The country’s tradition of political volatility may this time prove a blessing-in-disguise for the international sports movement.