On the day of the Olympic Parade of Nations, let's consider the relationship between sports and national character. Every year, a few organizations release a list of the countries they think are the freest in the world, and in so doing make clear their own biases. The free-market wonks at the Heritage Foundation don't care that in Singapore it's illegal for two men to kiss each other, or for those same two men to merely each chew a piece of gum. They only care that the Malay city-state's business policies are the stuff of Mike Bloomberg's wet dreams (when the mayor isn't messing his sheets thinking about Singapore's expansive nanny state, that is). The same goes for Reporters Without Borders, whose list is unsurprisingly preoccupied with the ability of journalists to do their jobs without fear of decapitation. (Looking at you, Mexico.)
So here's the Deadspin World Freedom Sports Index. Like the more ponderous freedom indices, this one is based on a narrow underlying concept: The countries that enjoy the most liberty are the ones that don't have to pretend that their leaders are good at sports.
Freest of the Free
United States of America
With apologies to the Glenn Greenwalds of the world, there is no freer country on the planet than our own. And the proof lies in the continued existence of this 48-second video.
Were this a totalitarian state, footage of onlookers laughing at the president while he missed four straight from behind the arc would be immediately wiped from every server in the country. All witnesses would be summarily executed while still on the court. And the lone survivor's memoir, One for Five: The Unmasking of a Leader, would be passed around, samizdat-style, by dissidents.
Of course, only a few short years after this footage was shot Obama unilaterally decided to kill an American-born man without due process. So, yeah, we're sticking to sports here.
When Prime Minister David Cameron ran a mile-long race for charity back in March, not only was it not rigged so that he could win, the isle's newspapers were merciless in their description of his performance. Cameron, one wrote the next day, "tore away from the rest of the field like an Olympic sprinter, leaving his wife, daughter and son trailing in his wake" before being "overtaken by more sensibly paced runners" and "wheezing across the finish line" after logging an 11-minute mile.
Meanwhile, roughly half of London Mayor Boris Johnson's appeal seems to come from his ability to impersonate a well-dressed albino caveman while wielding a tennis racket or bocce ball. And the whole country can't seem to get enough of the video showing Johnson stumble and accidentally gore a German competitor during a charity soccer match.
You still have shitty libel laws, Britannia, but let no one ever accuse you of not having a laugh at your leaders' expense.
The sovereign city-state makes the list because its prince (Albert, tee-hee) is a five-time Olympic bobsledder. Therefore, its people, all of whom I assume are both sexy and currently seated at a baccarat table, don't have to overestimate his abilities.
Kinda, Sorta Free, Provided You Know the Right People
Two people were ejected from this match. One was the guy kneed in the balls by Bolivian president Evo Morales. Morales was not the other one.
In fairness to the goalie who allowed Putin's game-winning top-shelfer, he was probably a little distracted by the idea that making the save would have almost certainly meant a lifetime of labor in Siberian ice-prison.
The People's Republic has lowered its expectations for its leaders' athletic performance since the era when 73-year-old Chairman Mao reportedly swam 15 kilometers down the Yangtze River in 65 minutes, two and a half times faster than the 2008 Olympic 10K gold-medal pace. Current President Hu Jintao does appear to know how to play table tennis. (He even holds the paddle in that correct way that you tried for a few points back in middle school before realizing you couldn't stop from hitting the ball with the handle.) Still, look at the rigorousness of that clapping! You just know that if even one of those students doesn't smack his palms together hard enough to blunt-force kill a bunny, he's headed for one of the second-tier finishing schools. (Which, in China, is roughly equivalent to death.)
Freedom's Just Another Word for "Re-Education Camp"
Uganda in the 1970s
Any dictator pretending to have game is pretty much just cribbing from the Idi Amin playbook. Take it away, Patrick Hruby:
According to a 2010 interview with Amin's former sports minister published in an East African newspaper, the Ugandan dictator decided, on a whim, to open the 1974 African amateur boxing championships with an impromptu bout between himself and national coach Peter Seruwai. Amin wore a necktie. Mr. Seruwagi wore a track suit. Under a headline modestly reading "Boxer of the Year," the official Ugandan state newspaper trumpeted Mr. Amin's technical knockout victory, noting that "the referee had to stop the fight in the second round to save Seruwagi from further punishment." True enough — as Mr. Seruwagi later said, "If I knocked out Amin, I would not have ended the night alive. 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."
General Amin is also one of the few "Dictathletes" (Hruby's coinage, not mine) to compete underwater. In this scene from a 1974 documentary, Amin "beats" five other more well-conditioned men in a sprint from one side of the pool to the other. Notice the way the guy second from right doesn't even bother to dive. Or the way the two on the left allow Amin to run them over. They're humoring him the way you or I might humor a young relative in a game of HORSE, if that young relative also had the wherewithal to have us disappeared and was comforted by the knowledge that everyone would be too scared to go looking for us.
Evo Morales may get preferential treatment from the refs, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the guy who shows up to the pick-up game wearing pants. How impossibly disfigured could this man's calves be?
To the unfortunate starving millions living in The Hermit Nation, dearly departed Dear Leader Kim Jong Il wasn't merely the greatest man to ever live, he was also the greatest sportsmen. Before his death last December, the North Korean state press had reported on all manner of Kim's accomplishments, including when he shot the best score in the history of golf (a 38-under round—his first—that included 11 holes in one), bowled a perfect 300 (again, during his first and only time on the lanes), and gave strategic advice to the coach of the men's national soccer team using an invisible cell phone of his own creation. Little wonder, then, that his death inspired such grief.
Caleb Hannan is a writer living in Denver who would have let Idi Amin beat him too.