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Dancing for Dictators

Rodman in North Korea

by BINOY KAMPMARK

What is it about the physically ornamented Dennis Rodman that gets on people’s goat?  He is much like the Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, but his clownish antics are of a different sort.  Balotelli, for one, tends to avoid getting into the muck of worshiping the bete noire types of international politics. If you are going to be notorious as a sportsman, shag indiscriminately, buy dearly and provoke instinctively.  Break hearts, but not the puritanical will of governments.  Don’t chat with leaders of unfavoured police states – the road there shall lead you nowhere.

Last Wednesday, Rodman drank from what must have been a stronger potion than usual, the sort that induces giddiness and public relations madness.  He did what sports stars and celebrities have done since the stage set got spectators. He sang.  He sang, rather badly, a happy birthday tribute to Kim Jung-un.  Prior to the match, he played, along with a varied group of ex-NBA players, in an exhibition match, conforming to the custom of show for cash and tribute.

Rodman also showed a lack of interest in the plight of detained American missionary Kenneth Bae, though this assumed as a sports figure he needed to give a righteous damn.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything,” Rodman subsequently explained.  “I just wanted to do some good stuff, that’s all I wanted to do.”  Evidently American authorities and some members of the public were assuming that Rodman would be some sporting state department, an ambassador of good will and diplomacy.  He would succeed where they had conspicuously failed.

The other players in the grouping have decided to backpedal – furiously.  Eric “Sleepy” Floyd claimed on ESPN that he was misled, showing that high IQs and fantastic basketball prowess may not be connected.  He had felt “uncomfortable” at not being given “all the information” about the program. This, mind you, did not compel him to withdraw from the performance. His excuse was that he would be working with children, rather than pandering to Kim’s birthday longings.

Then came other comments about Rodman’s adventure.  The infamous pugilist and assault merchant Mike Tyson weighed in, suggesting this was “some really bad stuff.”  He saw fiction. He didn’t see any humour in the display.  “You couldn’t even believe that’s real” (National Review, Jan 13).  Tyson, with moral indignation, suggested that Rodman had become a lackey.  Of course, lackeys are the stuff of the sporting race – whose lackey you are is a matter of degree.

The hypocrisy about reactions to Rodman’s behaviour in North Korea do not merely lie in the usual realm of the sanctimonious that accompanies remarks about the North Korean dictator.  Rodman is not a titanic intellectual, but nor are his critics.  That is the point – the critics assume that they are on moral ground – the sports star who should know better than being a show pony, a demonstrator of prowess, a moral being. Sports people are rarely moral because their pocket, let alone mind, won’t afford it.  Some politicians would agree.

Rodman has a peculiar relationship with the Korean leader, but not one peculiar to history.  Sports figures have shown time and again that they are the mercenaries of the political scene, pockets vast in anticipation of being filled.  Rodman ventured there in February, during which he claimed that a true friendship had been born.  He had found in Kim a “friend for life”.

Rodman’s views come from a specific angle that sees talent and performance as rentable.  Empty pockets meet heavy wallets, and the latter tend to be found amongst ruthless dictators who execute accountants if the bank balance is not sound.  In the commercially rich world of sporting performance, the fans are the greatest of renters – they pay, and the players perform.  It is a narrow view, one that refuses to accept that politics and sports do mix.  It is a dose that can be lethal depending on which end of the syringe you tend to be on.

Rodman’s remarks are those of the naïve idiot of history – I was admired, and I succumbed to the sweet odour of moneyed bliss.  “I am sorry.  I am not the president. I am not an ambassador.  I am Dennis Rodman.  Just an individual, just showing the world the fact that we can actually get along and be happy for one day.”  In his muddled thinking, he might be on to something.

In all truth, this may well be sincere. Here is Rodman articulating a world view, or rather, a narrow alley-view, a limited perspective that, taken on its own accord, is far from extraordinary. It is, at the end of the day, perhaps more genuine than those who support dictatorships with arms and backing, while decrying their behaviour on the other.  The sports performer is the whore of historical record – they should know and so should we.

A few examples spring to mind. The South African case is particular powerful, because here, some of cricket’s most notable players were bought by the apartheid regime to play what were termed “exhibition” matches. During the 1980s, so-called rebel tours were financed by a regime keen to find gold to gild their establishment.  The world power of cricket at that time was the West Indies, but that did not stop such figures as the demon fast bowler Colin Croft from partaking in the loot.

There are other contradictory illustrations of the same problem – do sports players perform before despots?  The very fact that the 1936 Olympics took place in Germany with Adolf Hitler as leader of the country should be sufficient evidence that the naïve linger in sport, as do the hypocrites in political circles who respond to it.  The few instances of political resistance, be it the response of Jesse Owens after winning the 100 meters men’s event, are rare.

Yes, Owens was triumphant, but he was also representing a segregated state that enjoyed his performance while despising his colour.  As Owens himself observed, a comment cited by Jeremy Schaap, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”  Owens’ own behaviour may well be the treasured moment of exceptional behaviour but it ignores the fact that Rodman’s was merely ordinary.

The one who truly benefits from this circus act is Kim.  Mock him, chide him, denigrate him as a little dictator short and stout – he remains in power, and the one who can open accounts and close others. The boy wonder has proven to be a killer, a purging leader and one intent on affirming his authority.  Rodman was seduced by snake-oil promises, but he is unlikely to be the last.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com