What is it about dictators, autocrats, tyrants – and, of course, extremely moderate and democratic young princes – who become addicted to sport? Is it really “sports washing” that attracts them: the idea that you can buy your way out of sin or even a bit of body-chopping by supporting football teams, racing drivers or athletes? Can the Olympics, Formula One or the English Premier League really matter that much when you have Patriot missiles, Heinkels, US-made cluster bombs, Roman legions or UK-manufactured fighter-bombers to defend you?
There must be something in the whole fandango that captures the imagination of despots. I need hardly mention the games at the Colosseum, when emperors paid good sestertii for the ferocious deaths of gladiators, Christians and countless innocent lions. Nor the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin, where Hitler even briefly abandoned antisemitism to “sports wash” the Nazis. As one German party newspaper put it at the time: “We must be more charming that the Parisians, more easygoing than the Viennese, more vivacious than the Romans, more cosmopolitan than London and more practical than New York.” The Soviet Union was pretty adept at turning sport into the imprimatur of communism, its Moscow football teams Spartak and Dynamo into princes of socialism.
I still remember the ultimate sport wash. Jimmy Carter had primly boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics because Leonid Brezhnev had just invaded Afghanistan, and prowling around Kabul airport early that year I spotted an Aeroflot plane pulling to a halt in front of the terminal. Just below the flight deck was a painting of the cosy, cuddly little brown bear – Misha was its name – which the Russians had decided should be the lovable mascot of the games.