Dictathletes: When it comes to sports, dictators have that competitive edge

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Hours after being sworn in as Russia’s president — his third such inauguration, but really, who’s counting? — Vladimir Putin did what authoritarian rulers do.

He pretended to be good at sports.

Forgoing a black-tie inaugural ball, Mr. Putin instead donned a hockey jersey, playing in a nationally televised match between an amateur squad and a team of Russian hockey legends.

More impressively, Mr. Putin dominated, recording an assist and two goals.

As for opposing players reportedly appearing “reluctant to challenge the newly installed president,” and NHL Hall of Famer Viacheslav Fetisov — a senator for the ruling United Russia party — whiffing on an overtime shootout shot that cost his team the game?

Total, total coincidence.

Indeed, world history is littered with dictators who just happened to be — ahem — towering athletic giants. In honor of Mr. Putin, we present a few of our favorite dictathletes:

Nero

Scouting report: According to Roman historians, the famously depraved emperor-cum-fiddling first responder enjoyed poetry, pederasty and wandering the streets of the Eternal City, randomly stabbing innocent people. Oh, and he also liked chariot racing — which put him squarely on the side of the hoi polloi and against the Roman elite, who looked down on the pursuit. (Chariot racing: the NASCAR of classical antiquity).

Shining moment (I): Roman historian Tacitus reports that during Nero’s persecution of Christians — which took place in the emperor’s personal gardens, with followers of Jesus nailed to stakes, set upon by ravenous canines and burned alive “to serve as nightly illumination when the daylight expired” — Nero enjoyed “mingling with the people in the dress of a charioteer,” the rough equivalent of Stalin showing up to the Gulags in a Red Army hockey jersey. Never mind the genocide — how about last night’s game?

Shining moment (II): Hardly content to watch from the stands, Nero fancied himself an actual chariot racer. According to Roman historian Suetonius, Nero postponed the ancient Olympics by two years to give himself more time to practice and prepare his horses; at the games themselves, he was thrown off his chariot, helped up by spectators and promptly thrown again. Failing to finish the race, he nevertheless was declared the winner — perhaps because he gave the judges “Roman citizenship and a large sum of money.”

Sporting legacy: Long before George Steinbrenner, Nero proved that you can, in fact, buy a championship.

Idi Amin

Scouting report: The homicidal Ugandan dictator was both physically powerful (6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds) and mentally unstable (proclaiming himself “the Last King of Scotland.”) Small wonder, then, that Amin was an accomplished heavyweight boxer in his youth.

Shining moment (I): According to a 2010 interview with Amin’s former sports minister published in an East African newspaper, the Ugandan dictator decided, on a whim, to open the 1974 African amateur boxing championships with an impromptu bout between himself and national coach Peter Seruwagi. Amin wore a necktie. Mr. Seruwagi wore a track suit. Under a headline modestly reading “Boxer of the Year,” the official Ugandan state newspaper trumpeted Mr. Amin’s technical knockout victory, noting that “the referee had to stop the fight in the second round to save Seruwagi from further punishment.” True enough — as Mr. Seruwagi later said, “If I knocked out Amin, I would not have ended the night alive. As I was entering the ring, his security men were standing at all corners. So I had to use my wisdom not to humiliate him.”

Shining moment (II): In a scene from a 1974 documentary film, the thick-bellied Amin — wearing what appears to be a gold watch and looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and a hairless grizzly bear — challenges five lithe swimmers to a race. After jumping in the water, Amin cuts across two lanes, shoving his competitors underwater en route; meanwhile, the other three racers move their arms rather unemphatically, generating splashes, if not actual forward movement.

Sporting legacy: Amin’s reign of terror also a powerful lesson for squash-playing corporate underlings everywhere.

Kim Jong-il

Scouting report: Recently departed Dear Leader was also quite possibly the greatest sportsman of the 20th century — that is, assuming the North Korean state press is 100 percent fair, balanced and accurate in its sports reporting.

Shining moment (I): In his first-ever game of golf, Mr. Kim finished an 18-hole round on a 7,700-yard course in Pyongyang with a score of 38 under par, recording from five to 11 holes-in-one. According, of course, to state media.

Shining moment (II): Bowled a perfect 300 in his first attempt. Also according to state media, which once reported that Mr. Kim invented the hamburger.

Shining moment (III): North Korean national soccer team manager Kim Jong-hun told ESPN.com that he received tactical advice during matches from Mr. Kim, via “mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye” using technology Mr. Kim “developed himself.”

Sporting legacy: If you want favorable coverage, expropriate the media.

Fidel Castro

Scouting report: Cuban dictator famously loves baseball almost as much as communism, brown hats.

Shining moment: Contrary to popular myth, the young Mr. Castro never tried out for the Washington Senators. He has, however, wrapped himself in the longtime competitive success of the Cuban national baseball team — and once used a 1999 Baltimore Orioles-Cuba exhibition game in Havana as an opportunity to sit next to Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Sporting legacy: Hanging around athletes is a great way to look younger and more vibrant than you actually are — almost as great as dying your beard, or sitting next to Bud Selig.

Al-Saadi Gadhafi

Scouting report: Eccentric Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi used his political pull to land his soccer-playing son, Al-Saadi, gigs with three Italian professional clubs over an eight-year span.

Shining moment (I): Jay Bothroyd, an Englishman who played with Al-Saadi in Italy, told Yahoo Sports that his Libyan teammate “wasn’t the best. But he did it as a hobby. He is a billionaire but … he wanted to play football, to come in every day and train. And he did it, to be fair. He never expected any special treatment. But obviously there were his bodyguards around.” Yes, and the children of former American presidents receive no special treatment from network news departments, either.

Shining moment (II): Al-Saadi played in a single game for the Italian club Perugia, as coach Serse Cosmi reportedly refused to go along with team owner Luciano Gaucci’s demand that Al-Saadi play regularly. According to the Yahoo Sports report, Mr. Gaucci later acknowledged that he had been told by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that it would be “politically advantageous to have Al-Saadi” on his team. But no special treatment!

Shining moment (III): In 2003, Al-Saadi was suspended after flunking a steroid test; coincidentally, he had hired disgraced Canadian sprinter and drug cheat Ben Johnson as his fitness trainer.

Shining moment (IV): Libyan state funds reportedly funded Al-Saadi’s soccer career; in the country’s domestic soccer league, only his name was allowed to be announced during matches in which he played.

Sporting legacy: Who knew Moammar Gadhafi was an insufferable Little League dad at heart?

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov

Scouting report: The authoritarian successor to former Turkmenistan president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, Mr. Berdymukhamedov has a little Nero in him: Specifically, he established an annual horse beauty contest in 2011 that includes an award for the best equine holiday attire.

Shining moment: At Turkmenistan’s first-ever auto race in April, Mr. Berdymukhamedov showed up in a Bugatti sports car and asked, “Can I take part?” He then recorded the fastest time-trial result, with race announcers noting that his car would be placed in the country’s national sports museum. For a man who won a recent presidential election with only 97 percent of the vote, what are the odds?

Sporting legacy: To be determined. Given that Mr. Niyazov once built a 50-foot gold-plated statue of himself — one that revolved so that it always faced the sun — Mr. Berdymukhamedov is playing catch-up, no matter how fast he can allegedly drive.

Admiral-General Aladeen

Scouting report: Titular character in “The Dictator,” played by comic actor and “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen.

Shining moment: Stages own Olympics, shooting other sprinters with a revolver to win a race.

Sporting legacy: The “Borat” national anthem was recently played for a real-life Kazakh athlete who won an international shooting gold medal; in the case of Admiral-General Aladeen, let’s hope life doesn’t end up imitating art.

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