What just happened?
Controversy has erupted in the United States over the basketball match played by Dennis Rodman and other ex-NBA players in North Korea, as part of the birthday celebrations of the country’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
Rodman’s presence in the Asian nation and his positive statements about the North Korean leader (‘The Worm’ said Kim was “a nice guy”) has generated backlash in American public opinion.
David Stern, the NBA commissioner, was one of the most critical with the former Chicago Bull, saying Rodman “is blinded by a flash of North Korean money”.
Beyond whether it is correct or not for the former basketball player to publicly praise the North Korean leader, the important thing here is this is another example of the political use that sport has, both for good and for evil.
Perhaps the best example of this has been the Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa in 1995 and the role played by Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar.
On that occasion, a country broken by Apartheid joined behind that common ideal that was the Sprigbooks, once a symbol of racial segregation.
As clearly reflected in the movie ‘Invictus’, Mandela defended to the hilt the importance of the Boks as a symbol of the African nation, even against the opinion of the majority of the ANC (African National Congress).
Mandela thought maybe this would be the single point of contact between the black majority and the white minority.
Sport unites. It can unify all levels of a nation.
Putting aside any ultra nationalistic fantasy, the victory of any national team can become a source of unimaginable joy for society, even in the worst moments of a country.
But like everything in life, these situations have their counterpart.
For Argentina, the FIFA World Cup of 1978 was perhaps one of the most bitter joys of its history.
The tournament was held and won for the first time by Argentina at a time the country was in its blackest hour, under the iron fist of a military dictatorship led by Jorge Rafael Videla.
The organisation of the championship, where corruption was the usual rule, was only a mask, a lie devised by criminals who wanted to show the world a happy and united nation.
But the reality was very different.
The political persecution and murder perpetrated by the Argentine government against its own citizens could not be hidden and many players like Johan Cruyff refused to attend the tournament.
The sad part of all this is that the stadium where the final of the World Cup was played is located just ten blocks from what was the worst clandestine detention center during those years, the ESMA.
It is impossible not to think that maybe, as Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni scored the decisive goals, someone was being tortured a few blocks from there.
The reality, liked or not, is that governments around the world will continue using sport to achieve political objectives – whether to unite the nation or to mount a farce.