Great Sports

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kim Jong Il was a genius. The late and beloved leader of North Korea, whose wondrous virtues included being able to change the weather with his mood and navigate a great nation directly into the horrors of mass starvation, was also a whizz around the golf course.

He played only once, at the lengthy 7,700-yard course in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but his exploits remain the most astonishing on record. Eleven holes in one — that’s right, 11 — in a round that ended as a world record 38 under par. Forget the Jack and Tiger debate: when it comes to greatness in golf, there is only one name worth mentioning, particularly if you want to avoid ten years of hard labour in the infamous Camp 22.

Some cynics have alleged that Kim’s golfing feat, which took place in 1994 when he was 52, was fictitious, citing that this was the first (and last) time the Great Leader deigned to swing a club. But they have reckoned without the blessings of deification. Kim, according to the North Korean state website, enjoyed a supernatural birth heralded by a swallow, which has to do something for a chap’s handicap.

Besides, there is proof (or at least what passes for it in North Korea). All 17 of the late dictator’s bodyguards have testified that the golfing miracle did indeed take place. It’s just a pity Norris McWhirter wasn’t there, too.

But while Kim goes into the annals as the world’s greatest golfer, it is worth noting that he is not the only dictator to have performed sporting miracles. Fidel Castro, whose brother Raúl is minding the shop in Cuba while the cigar-smoking revolutionary recovers from illness, was, apparently, an outstanding baseball player.

One rumour, perhaps got up by Castro himself, or possibly his bodyguards, or even Kim Jong Il (you know how dictators look out for each other’s backs — and weapons silos) reveals that Castro was once given a tryout by the New York Yankees. Whatever the truth (and, vexingly for the big fellow, the club have poured scorn upon the idea and he doesn’t have 17 bodyguards to corroborate it), there is no doubt that Castro played baseball for many years after becoming Supreme Leader.

We know this because those he played against have spoken about the games that took place under floodlights in suburban Havana. But the remarkable thing is that, despite baseball being a team game, and one that encompasses a great deal of unpredictability, Castro always seemed to win. “He would arrive, form two teams and they’d start playing”, Panchito Fernandez, who umpired the night games, put it.

“Sometimes he’d pitch three innings, sometimes seven, sometimes he’d bat, sometimes he’d play first base. But he was tireless. In one game when we reached the ninth inning, the score was 2-1. But the Commander said there was no time limit because he was losing. In the eleventh inning, it was a draw and we played on to the sixteenth inning. He was in the lead and said: ‘It’s all over now.’ He hated losing.”

Clever tactics, you might say, but these were nothing compared with Nero, the Roman emperor who murdered his own mother to get his hands on power in AD54. The portly leader took part in the chariot racing at the Olympic Games but, despite falling out of his vessel, still managed to win gold. How? Well, he simply ordered the judges to proclaim that, had he not fallen off, he would have triumphed. He also won six other gold medals by the ingenious method of instructing his opponents not to turn up.

I would love to go on, because there are dozens more stories of dictators from ancient times right through to the present day attempting to pass off themselves, or their progeny, as elite sportsmen, whether by telling porkies, bending the rules, intimidating opposition or, in the case of Al-Saadi Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan tyrant, forbidding any other Libyan footballer to be named by stadium announcers, paying off the referees and using the security forces to silence protests.

Perhaps there is something about the raging egos of these assorted despots that they wanted to reach the pinnacle of sporting success without bothering to go through the usual procedure of dedication and thousands of hours of practice. What is certain is that the propaganda and manipulation, which had limited success in other areas of political life, didn’t work in sport. Not even in the short term. Not even when disseminated by the state media, corroborated by terrified bodyguards, proclaimed by wide-eyed newscasters and accepted by threatened opponents.

Pretty much all of those who played baseball with Castro held him in contempt, despite the bribes he sent their way. As for the judges who fixed it for Nero, they expunged his triumphs from the record books just as soon as he had snuffed it. And my hunch is that, for all the propaganda success of Kim and his cronies when it came to convincing the masses that starvation was an economic success story compared with the flabby West, they just shrugged their shoulders and giggled when news came in of 11 holes in one.

When it comes to sport, you see, you can’t fool the people even some of the time. You cannot spin a bad left peg. You cannot talk your way out of a hook swing. And if you decide to pay off the judges retrospectively to award you a laurel wreath, you succeed only in making yourself look like an idiot (even if everyone is too afraid to say so). Sport, unlike the endlessly grey area of politics, cannot be manipulated like that.

Perhaps that is why we love it.

Indeed, without wanting to push the point too far, there is something deeply reassuring about the objectivity of sport. Ideological debates often get heated, with each side citing different kinds of evidence to support their stance. You sometimes feel that you are going around in circles. Sport is not like that. We can debate whether a particular individual or team deserved to win, and we can also argue about whether a referee got the key decisions right. But nobody tries to argue that Huddersfield Town won the Premier League last year. Not unless they have ambitions to run North Korea.

Indeed, if you ask me, the best measure of a person’s sanity, or capacity to lead a middle-sized nation, is simply to measure the relationship between their golf handicap and the one they pass off to their acolytes in a bar. If a guy says, “Oh, I’m an 18” and goes out and hits ten balls out of bounds, you have a nutter on your hands. Just the kind of chap who could end up running Iran. If, on other hand, he goes round in 90, you have a realistic contender for the Cabinet.

On that measure, Kim was quite possibly the greatest lunatic on the planet. I only wonder what his son’s handicap is.

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