Why dictators hate sport
Salil Tripathi
Monday 17th June 2002

Observations on the World Cup by Salil Tripathi

While their materialistic cousins in Seoul and Pusan are busy cheering World Cup teams in their swanky stadiums, the upright citizens of Pyongyang, having spurned South Korea's offer that the North host some matches, are watching only those games that the state-run television company deems worthy of a delayed telecast.

Many, in fact, are watching the Arirang Festival, which includes choreographed performances by flawless gymnasts and dancers, paying tribute to the Kim dynasty.

The staging of the World Cup, 14 years after it hosted the Olympics, is a triumph for South Korea; and it spells humiliation for all that the North has tried to represent. It wasn't supposed to be like that. South Korea, the stooge of imperialists, was supposed to languish; revolutionary North Korea was supposed to be the winner. But life did not imitate the scripts of North Korea's supreme leader - the man of many talents, including film-making, Kim Jong-il. Life, like sport, is unpredictable and cannot be controlled.

Authoritarian regimes can't stand that. They despise the spontaneity, the upset result, the freak occurrence because that challenges the grand design, the plan, of what was expected. Adolf Hitler did not know that a black American called Jesse Owens would skewer his theories of racial purity at the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin. The whole point of sport is that unknown teams can pull off upsets - like Senegal against France, or the US against Portugal. North Korea ought to know that fairy tale well: it did it once, against Italy, here in England, in 1966.

What authoritarian regimes dread most is the unknown, the unexpected; autocrats want election results to be declared even before the first votes are cast. Officials in Beijing, it is said, were nervous when China lost to Costa Rica on the 13th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Leaving nothing to chance, China had jailed 25 democracy campaigners and sentenced two others to long imprisonment that week. How would the crowds react? China's appeals to South Korean officials to prevent any display of protest in the stadium paid off; the match ended smoothly, although China lost.

Not all closed societies are losers at sports. The former Soviet Union, the erstwhile German Democratic Republic and, lately, China, have been formidable sporting nations. They achieved this brutally - often yanking athletes from their families at a tender age and pumping them with banned substances.

The autocrats may have a point about the subversive nature of sport. The USSR hosted the Olympics in 1980; a decade or so later, it ceased to exist. Army rule in South Korea did not long survive hosting the Olympics. China is due to host them in 2008. The Chinese may think it worth the risk: diverting people's attention to sports is still safer than letting them have subversive thoughts. But under the floodlights, anything can happen, as football teaches us each day.