Stephen M. Bland
Freelance Journalist, Award-Winning Author, Travel Writer, Researcher and Editor specialising in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan
Mao Tse-Tung, China. The Smithsonian reported that 'his fat made him extremely bouyant
Idi Amin, Uganda
Vladimir Putin wins again, Russia
President Berimuhamedow prostrate, Turkmenistan
Sportsman Strongman - The Sporting Adventures of Dictators
Sporting success is a fillip to any government, but sometimes one needs to go further and enforce public participation. The logical next step, of course, is to become a sporting hero, to be that shining example to one’s people. This list traces the long, proud history of sporting triumphs achieved by sporting dictators’ and their families.
Nursultan Nazarbayev – Kazakhstan
In a land the size of Western Europe, as part of a nationwide health drive, in 2003 Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev forced five million people – 30% of the population - to take part in the world’s largest simultaneous aerobics display. An avid tennis fan, the seventy-three year old former doubles partner of Boris Yeltsin still gives ‘master classes’ in the sport. The world’s ninth largest producer of oil, the deal to sell Kazakh oil to BP was struck over a game of tennis. In his former palace in the capital Astana, now a museum devoted to ‘national hero’ Nazarbayev, who won the last Presidential elections with 95.5% of the vote, a tennis ball signed by Boris Becker takes pride of place.
Mao Tse-Tung – China
Chairman Mao was seventy-three years old when he purportedly swam fifteen kilometres down the Yangtze River in sixty-five minutes, over twice the 2008 Olympic ten kilometre gold medal winner’s pace. Comparing the Yangtze River to imperialist America, ‘big, but not frightening,’ the idea of conquering the river had long appealed to Mao, who wrote a poem about it. Perhaps his greatest piece of political theatre, the ‘world record’ swim symbolised the fact that Mao, who had only appeared in public once in the preceding year and was rumoured to be in ill-health, was still the driving force in China.
Al-Saadi Gaddafi - Libya
Football mad Al-Saadi Gaddafi, son of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, started his footballing career in Libya, where the law stipulated that commentators were only allowed to mention his name, lest other players should become more popular. In a country where the regime’s legitimacy was on the line every time he played, his Tripoli side never lost.
Following a string of suspect decisions in a match in the summer of 2000, Tripoli’s arch rivals Benghazi attempted to walk off the pitch, but were prevented from doing so by armed guards. Al-Saadi Gaddafi’s personal rivalry with Benghazi came to a head after their fans dared boo him and dress a donkey in his team’s colours. ‘I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl's nest!’ an irate Gaddafi hollered at the Benghazi Chairman. It was not an idle threat. Soon, with swathes of their supporters sentenced to death, nothing but rubble remained of Benghazi’s ground.
Al-Saadi went on to play in Italy, though not very successfully. Despite employing Diego Maradona as his technical consultant and disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as his trainer, after his single appearance for Perugia, newspaper La Repubblica commented that ‘Even at twice his current speed he would still be twice as slow as slow itself’. The Chairman of Perugia later admitted to Yahoo Sports that he’d been under pressure to give Al-Saadi more game time, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi telling him that it would be ‘politically advantageous’.
Following the fall of his father, Al-Saadi has recently been extradited back to Libya and is standing trial for war crimes.
Emperor Nero - Rome
Roman Emperor Nero may have been the original sporting dictator. A huge fan of chariot racing, when he could spare the time from torturing Christians in his personal gardens, Nero loved to race. Roman historian Suetonius reports how Nero went so far as to have the Olympics delayed for two years to give himself more time to practice. At the games, Nero drove a ten-horse chariot compared to his competitors’ four-horses. Despite being twice thrown from his chariot and never completing the course, he was still declared the winner. As Suetonius wrote, he did, after all, give the judges ‘Roman citizenship and a large sum of money’.
Fidel Castro – Cuba
Whilst studying at the University of Havana, Fidel Castro was scouted by several major league baseball teams. In 1947 the Pittsburgh Pirates went so far as to send players out to test the young pitcher, who duly struck out future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. In 1949 the New York Giants allegedly offered young Fidel a contract with a $5,000 signing on bonus, but already heavily politicized by this time, much to the Giants surprise, after a few days spent mulling over his options, young Fidel turned the offer down.
Rustam Emomalii – Tajikistan
Behind Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon’s shiny new Palace of Nations stands the Central Republican Stadium, home to football club Istiqlol Dushanbe. Widely seen as heir apparent to his father’s position, the President’s twenty-six year old son, Rustam founded the club for which he played as striker and captained. Now head of the National Football Federation, it has been alleged that the Istiqlol Dushanbe’s winning of the National Super Cup for the last four seasons is down to favourable officials and the intimidation of opponents.
Bullying is nothing new in Tajik football. In October 2013, having scored twice against his hometown club, striker Ahtam Hamrokulov returned to his apartment only to find that disgruntled officials had cut off his water and electricity.
Idi Amin – Uganda
Ugandan dictator Idi amin, who liked to keep the severed heads of his enemies in his freezer so he could lecture their spirits, was not a man to be trifled with. Rally driver, rugby player, footballer, in a 1974 documentary, the man who declared himself to be the ‘Last King of Scotland’ won a swimming competition by grabbing two of his opponents in headlocks and holding them underwater. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the field didn’t attempt to catch up.
Spurred on by his success, Idi Amin opened the African Amateur Boxing Championships later that year with an impromptu bout against national coach, Peter Seruwagi. Still decked in his necktie, Amin soon sent his opponent crashing to the canvas and was duly declared ‘Boxer of the Year’. ‘If I knocked out Amin, I would not have ended the night alive,’ Seruwagi later commented. ‘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.’
Vladimir Putin – Russia
Shortly after being inaugurated as Russian President for the third time, Vladimir Putin pulled on his hockey jersey and dominated in a nationally televised match against a team of legends who seemed strangely ‘reluctant to challenge’ him.
As Ukraine burned, on May 10th 2014, in a game delayed for a minutes silence in memory of pro-Russian separatists, Putin donned his hockey jersey once more, scoring six goals and bagging five assists as his side thrashed their opponents 21-4. ‘President Vladimir Putin is in excellent shape,’ the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency gushed.
Vladimir Putin is also famed for his deep sea diving, judo fighting, bear wrestling and bareback horse riding skills.
Kim Jong-Il – North Korea
Not content with hosting ‘Mass Games’ in Pyongyang’s 150,000 seater stadium – the world’s largest – Kim Jong-Il decided to take a more hands-on approach to sports. Ensuring the North Korean squad at the 2004 football World Cup were suitably incentivised, those that performed well were given apartments, whilst those that didn’t were sent to work in coal mines. Not content with his nation’s performance at the tournament, Kim Jong-Il reportedly invented an ‘invisible cell phone,’ which enabled him to give tactical advice directly to the nation’s head coach.
Turning his own hand to sports, Kim Jong-Il found he was rather good at them. Wearing platform shoes and a shirt with ‘Dear Leader’ embroidered upon it, in his first ever match at the Pyongyang bowling lanes, sportsman extraordinaire Kim Jong-Il bowled a perfect 300. Teeing off in his maiden round of golf, the Supreme Leader posted the best score in the history of the sport, a thirty-eight under par, including eleven holes in one. Cruel rumours persist that a team of gofers hidden in the bushes helped his ball along the fairways.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow – Turkmenistan
In addition to being a pilot, writing books and crooning ballads, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is presented as a sportsman of immense ability. Having won the inaugural ‘Tour de Ashgabat,’ Berdimuhamedow recently ordered citizens to purchase bicycles ahead of a national race, the threat of redundancy hanging over anyone foolhardy enough not to comply. With summer temperatures averaging above thirty-eight degrees Celsius, the inherent risk of heatstroke was summarily dismissed.
In the so-called ‘Era of Might and Happiness… shaping a generation that is physically healthy and spiritually perfect’ is a priority, the state run news agency reported, announcing enforced calisthenics as part of a ‘Week of Health and Happiness’. Citizens of this desert nation were also strongly encouraged to take up ice hockey.
With his competitor’s tugging at their reins for dear life in fear of beating him, in April 2013 upon a steed called “Mighty,” the fifty-six year old President was victorious in Turkmenistan’s most prestigious horse race. An omnicompetent dynamo, if anyone can, the Berdy Man can.
Taking a comedy spill immortalized on YouTube just seconds after crossing the finish line, a dumbfounded silence descended over the crowd. Fifty dark suited secret service agents wearing worried expressions scampering onto the track, in his sheepskin telpek hat and crimson kaftan, Berdimuhamedow was soon back on his feet, waving at his vassals as he claimed the eleven million dollar first prize.
Unsurprisingly, Berdimuhamedow won the event again in 2014, his victory, reported the State News Agency of Turkmenistan, greeted with the ‘wild and lasting ovation’ due to the ‘great mastery of an experienced and brave rider’.