Absolute power gives those who have it all kinds of crazy ideas. From creating your own all-star team to hiding your war crimes with olympic events, the most dangerous, homicidal and powerful people in the world often have a built-in way to rally their people together and convince them to ignore the terrible violations of freedom occurring while they cheer on their sporting icons.
In antiquity, this close association of autocracy and sport could mean death at the hands of the high priest, as in the famed Mayan ball game that predates our modern ball sports by millennia and yet shares many of its characteristics. In Rome, sometimes the Emperor would insert himself into the games and force other competitors to let him win. In the courts of renaissance Europe, sports and games were largely war games staged as elaborate shows of power.
But as authoritarian rule began to take a different shape as sporting culture became more important to national identities in countries across the world, sports became even more of a political tool than they ever had before. And with the advents of communism and fascism in the 20th century, sports were often outright political entities, from Lazio and Real Madrid’s latent fascism to Glasgow Rangers abject love of authoritarian rule and fascist salutes. Dictatorial spirits fit sports like a black shirt under Gigi Buffon’s jersey.
The following dictators, in various ways and to various extents, changed the sporting cultures in their country—often for the worse. Most of the time, this is the result of simple megalomania, but every once in awhile it’s a symptom of something far more evil.
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11 Idi Amin
You might not expect Uganda’s champion breaststroker to be able to be portrayed on screen by Forrest Whitaker, but the former British colony was indeed ruled by a portly dictator who, in addition to claiming to be the best swimmer in the nation, also presented himself as Uganda’s foremost boxer. Before a boxing tournament in Uganda in 1974, Amin decided that he would take on national boxing coach Peter Seruwagi as an opening bout. Despite attempts by his athletics minister to dissuade Amin, the despot entered the ring, beating Seruwagi by knockout.
10 Vladimir Putin
After being sworn in, the most recent time, as leader of Russia (his actual title has varied but his position is the same), Vladimir Putin’s first official action was to take part in a hockey game. On his birthday in 2015, he played in another, as a member of a self-assembled all-star team and scored no less than seven goals in the leader’s routing of the opposition. Not since Josef Stalin have Russians been so afraid of sporting matches, except under Stalin the USSR had to win—under Putin he has to win. That’s what capitalism will do to you.
When imperial Rome decided to put on its version of the Olympic games during the reign of Nero, the Roman Emperor himself competed in more than 1,800 events, winning 1,808 olive wreaths, the ancient equivalent of medals. No one will ever come close to winning that many accolades in a single sporting festival, but it’s unlikely that Nero really did either. According to The Classical World Dictionary, Nero was supposed to have been trying to “eliminate the fondness for Rome gladiatorial shows and to encourage more noble entertainment.” We can’t help but think he was out for attention.
8 Alyaksandr Lukashenka
Just like Putin, who seems to have taken many of his cues from Lukashenka—a man who never even bothered to re-name the KGB after the fall of communism—the Belarusian despot loves to impose himself on hockey games in the capital of Minsk. But not only does the Belarusian strongman impose himself on other teams’ contests, he has his own squad, which he says is comprised of working men, amateurs and hockey players of all levels, given a chance to play with the president himself. Mostly though, the team consists of the nation’s finest pros and no one really ever bothers to try beating them.
7 Josef Stalin
“Comrade Stalin, on your orders we have investigated the reasons for the defeat of the CDKA soccer team,” was how the Moscow Times message to Stalin began after a defeat that severely displeased the leader of the Soviet Union. One can only imagine what might have happened if the writer of that report didn’t go to extreme pains to make the Soviet athletes look as good as possible. Siberia, a gulag, even a shallow grave weren’t out of the question. For Stalin, much like his arch-rival Hitler, sport was a way of proving the superiority of his country’s physical prowess and making bold political statements.
6 Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
President of the tiny oil-rich west African nation of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, Mbasogo has learned many tactics for directing attention away from his decades-old history of human rights abuses and authoritarian ruling style. But his favorite revolves around soccer. Despite hosting the African Cup of Nations in 2012 and building brand new stadiums for the occasion, much of the country’s population lives without proper nutrition, access to clean water, or basic infrastructure.
5 Francisco Franco
FIFA, in a characteristic relationship with fascist dictatorship, recognized Generalissimo Franco’s Spanish soccer association two years before the world at large acquiesced to the fall of yet another of Western Europe’s most cultured and storied nations fall into the grip of the most hateful ideology in history. He even re-named the nation’s highest club football honor, the Copa Del Rey, to reflect his megalomania: during his reign, which was for some reason allowed by the Allies to continue well past the death of fascism elsewhere in Europe, the trophy was known as the “Copa del Generalisimo.”
4 Augusto Pinochet
Not as much attention to it is paid in our history books as European fascism, but its South American descendent had just as much corrupt immorality in their regimes. When General Augusto Pinochet took over his country, Chile, in a bloody coup, he turned the country’s national soccer stadium into a concentration camp for political opponents just weeks before a planned World Cup qualifying match against the USSR. The Soviets refused to play in a stadium “stained with blood” and FIFA (known bastion of morality and truth) went to Chile to investigate. That’s when Pinochet’s thugs held guns to the heads and hands over the mouths of their prisoners. FIFA claimed to have never seen one of the thousands of refugees. When the Soviet team followed through on their threat and refused to play, Chile advanced to the World Cup.
3 Adolf Hitler
For Hitler, the 1936 summer olympics was far more than a chance to legitimize his regime by hosting the world for a three-week festival of sport - it was a chance to prove to the world that his insane racial ideologies were valid. He wanted to show everyone that his aryan supermen could best anyone the “inferior” nations of the world could field against them. His wishes came crashing down when Jesse Owens outran everyone the Nazi olympics could pit against him, much to Hitler’s chagrin.
3. Slobodan Milosevic
One of the most vicious war criminals in history, Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic had a profound impact on the soccer culture in his country: He made the hooliganistic fans of Red Star Belgrade hate him so much that they turned their constant violence away from rival club Partizan Belgrade and toward the police who were protecting Milosevic’s corrupt and genocidal regime. After the dust settled, the new mayor of Belgrade, Milan St Protic, thanked the ultras for their heroic role in the revolution.
2 Kim Jong Il
The Dear Leader was a bit of a renaissance man. He was notoriously interested in film, even having a formal western education in the subject and a penchant for bloody gangster movies. He was a connoisseur of fine food and drink. And most importantly, he was a sporting prodigy of the highest level. Going out for his first ever round of golf, a sport that had gained massive popularity in the capitalist South and could therefore be easily conquered by the hardy Northern leader. True to form, he later claimed to have made five holes in one in that first round. According to Golf Magazine, his final score after 18 holes was a world record 34, if you believe him.
1 Benito Mussolini
Italy won both two World Cups in the 1930s - both under the close watchful eye of Il Duce, the fascist dictator most closely resembling a cartoon character in retrospect. Mussolini didn’t actually give a fart about calcio, the national sport of Italy as it is in most places on earth, but he realized he could use it as a political tool. Mussolini, with the approval of his Italian Fascist Party, introduced Serie A, the top flight of Italian football that still exists to this day, and made damn sure that Italy wasn’t going to lose the 1934 or 38 World Cups. The performance of the Azzurri on the field couldn’t be controlled, but bribing referees and widespread corruption made sure Italy kept the Cup.
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