Health: Running mates

President Bush stood glistening before the assembled media throng. Fresh from clocking 20 minutes 27 seconds in a three-mile race around the Fort McNair army base, Bush cut a fine figure of a man. With the legend "Healthier US Government" emblazoned across his rippling chest, he announced his latest ambition: war on obesity. In a message which echoed his "smoke 'em out, to get 'em running, so we can get 'em", speech earlier this year, he demanded that the American public abandon the cigarettes, the booze and the fatty foods in favour of a vigorous regime of fresh fruit, vegetables and jogging. "Regularly hiking through a park can add years to your life," he declared.

At the age of 55, Bush jogs every day and does daily weight-training. He can bench-press five repetitions of 185lbs and run a six-and-three-quarter-minute mile for three miles. He has elected himself as a role model for the American people, and now expects his staff to do the same. "I insist that they take time off, out of their daily grind to get some exercise," he announced, sending White House employees scurrying, red-faced, towards the gym.

Tall, bronzed and toned, Bush is positively the Hercules of the world's leaders. But who are his main rivals on the track? In an all-star presidential Olympics, who would snatch gold, and who would mince home with their tail between their legs?

In the red corner is Russian president Vladimir Putin , who sets aside nigh-on an hour each morning for swimming and "other exercise". He also tries to notch up an additional 90 minutes later in the day. As well as being an accomplished skier, Putin is, famously, a black belt in karate. However, his credibility was called into question when he was publicly floored on the judo mat by a 10-year-old girl in 2000. A strong contender, but, ladies and gentlemen, is he all mouth and no trousers?

Another firm favourite is Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien. He relishes being photographed indulging in any kind of sporting activity, and still skis and plays golf at the grand old age of 67. Indeed, for his 65th birthday he received his first ever snowboarding lesson.

But it seems swimming is the chosen sport of world leaders. China's president Jiang Zemin regularly does a few lengths, as does Finnish president Tarja Halonen, who is also rather fond of nipping through a hole in the ice for an invigorating dip in the Baltic sea.

Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, meanwhile, also swims every morning. Indeed, in 1955 he was the champion swimmer of all Lebanon.

Each year, Iraqi swimmers give thanks for the day in 1997 when, at the age of 60, Saddam Hussein swam, in a fetching black swimsuit and white cap ensemble, three times across the Tigris river. How he must have looked for all the world like a lifesized pint of Guinness ploughing across the waters. Nevertheless, the Iraqi people were suitably impressed by this show of physical prowess, reassured that theirs was an impressively robust leader.

But all this messing about on the river means diddly squat if you're sucking up a steady diet of foie grois and lardons . In 1999, as the seat of power swayed from Berlin to Bonn, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder developed a penchant for currywurst - a curious concoction of sausage meat flavoured with curry powder and ketchup. So mammoth grew Schroeder's consumption of his beloved currywurst , that his lady wife Doris insisted he quit the habit before his girth ballooned any further.

Schroeder has nothing on his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, who, when he finally rolled out of power in 1998, weighed in at a hefty 365lbs. Kohl has, incidentally, written a cookbook entitled Culinary Voyage Through Germany, in which he reminisces fondly of the Friesan waffles he has known and loved, alongside endless recipes for potato pancakes, cabbage rouladen and Swabian ravioli, stuffed with veal and spinach. On the subject of veal, Jacques Chirac 's favourite meal is la tete de veau ravigotte - that's head of veal in ravigotte sauce for the uneducated. He likes to wash it down with a vinatge bottle of Corona Extra.

Moves to control the spreading girth of our leaders often come to nought. Ariel Sharon, for example, was once presented with a gift of SlimFast. Sadly, Sharon failed to grasp the concept of "A shake for breakfast, one for lunch, and a proper dinner!" and chugged down three cans of the chocolate flavour milkshake in one go.

And so to our own Tony Blair. We know the prime minister likes to work out. Some may recall that when Blair and Bush met the assembled media one morning at Camp David last year, Blair had already been to the gym, and Bush was on his way to rack up a few bench-presses. We know he likes tennis and football and that his favourite meal is fish and chips (if you believe the Labour spin-bowlers) or fresh fettucine garnished with an exotic sauce of olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers (if the Islington Cookbook is your bible).

I call the press officer at 10 Downing Street to ask her exactly what sort of exercise Tony does, and how often. "We don't discuss it," she says, somewhat sniffily. Even though all the other world leaders are quite open about it? "Well, I don't speak for the other world leaders," she replies. Well then, even though Blair has gone on record in the Guardian as saying he "works out" you can't give us any more details? "Well y'know ..." she intones, "I think that's enough."

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