In 1931 Hitler’s Germany hosted and won the Olympics. At the same time they were dreaming of an Aryan nation and putting Romani into camps.
In 1968 Mexico hosted the Olympics. Ten days earlier the military had trapped protesters in the plaza at Tlatelolco (in DF), and started shooting.
In 1978 Videla’s Argentina hosted and won the World Cup. At the same time it was elbow-deep in its Dirty War, and thousands of people were disappearing.
In 1988 South Korea hosted and did pretty well in the Olympics. At the time the country was edging towards democracy, but the military government of Chun Doo-hwan had overseen the lead-up to the games, as well as the oppression of pro-democracy movements.
OK, these may be pretty isolated events, but I remember when I first read about the military governments in South Korea that I was shocked that a country without democray could host the Olympics. I was also shocked that anyone had turned up to compete.
I was equally surprised when I first heard of the Tlatelolco massacre (I think I have Octavio Paz to thank for that). At the time I’m sure things didn’t seem so quite clear cut, but it still seems like there should have been less countries keen to compete in a country that held its citizens’ lives in such low esteem. To be fair it’s only in more recent times that general opinion has swung strongly against what happened at Tlatelolco; since 2000 it has been revealed that the snipers thought to have been shooting at the military – and these were the pretext for the whole thing – were probably deployed by the government (click here for a great post – that includes a quote from Milan Kundera! – about Tlatelolco).
In all these cases there probably should have been some kind of boycott, and not along lines of political allegiance, but rather on the grounds of basic human rights. The idea in 1936 seems to have been that sport needed to be kept pure and apolitical, and thus that boycotts had no place in the Olympics. That seems awfully naive; you might just about be able to keep politics off the pitch, but you certainly can’t keep it out of sport.
All of these regimes (and no they weren’t all strictly authoritarian, but none of them were that nice) were under some sort of pressure, whether it be internationally or domestically. Hosting high-profile sports was a pretty useful rallying point, a way to keep their people’s minds off of the atrocities taking place in their back yards. Dominance at the Olympics could be used to push the Aryan agenda. It could be used to keep a massacre out of the headlines.
What put all this on my mind was North Korea’s participation in the Mundial. Given that North Korea is basically a hermit state, that no one is supposed to enter or leave, it seemed extraordinary to me that they should be a part of a global event. I suspect that the gamble and struggle of international sports would appeal to the macho patriarch mind of the Kim Jung-Il. I suspect that the idea of winning would appeal to him even more.
But North Korea’s participation really is at odds with what appears to be the style of the North Korean regime. It doesn’t sit well with keeping people in the dark and feeding them propaganda about the decadent West. It is a relaxing of the strict controls, and to what purpose? To what real gain? Not only were people allowed out of North Korea, but some things may have crept in. It’s pretty hard to show an image of the Mundial without showing advertising – that Western contagion. It’s pretty hard to keep demonising the outside world when they are playing a game with you and shaking hands with you afterwards.
I have no idea if this is true, but I have heard that Nirth Korea actually decided to broadcast one of the Mundial matches, and that the one chosen was the one in which Portugal spanked the Koreans 7-0 (I suppose the inspired performance against Brazil probably left the dictator thinking his team stood a chance). Even if the match wasn’t broadcast, how would the regime have portrayed it? Was the national team a bunch of heroes or traitors? Did Western witchery (and the diabolical Cristiano Ronaldo) undo the team? Would the regime just flat out lie about the result?
However the spanking was portrayed, it represented a conundrum for regime. Conundrums don’t seem particularly conducive to absolute rule, especially where that rule may have shaky foundations. So why did North Korea do it? Does sport really have that much lure?
There is a strategy here. If you want to hurt a regime, hurt them on the pitch.