I must, right off the bat, admit that I am a sports nut. No, I’m not the kind of guy who knows every free-throw percentage of every player in the NBA, but I do know the ’86 Mets won the World Series after the famous Bill Buckner incident. That is especially powerful in my mind, because earlier in that year I went to my first Major League game, where the Mets defeated the Giants. The Miracle Mets pulled it off, working late into the night. I was hooked.
Now, I will watch almost any sport I see on TV or in person. And being a sports guy I see a lot of things in the world through the lens of sports. The tension of the Cold War: it’s just like the Red Sox and the Yankees. A looming budget showdown: Tim Tebow with a minute left, and down by 3.
One thing I’ve always noticed is the way sports are played out on the international stage between countries. Particularly of note is the fact that countries like China and the Soviet Union always did amazingly well in the Olympics, but were without any professional sports teams. Communist countries always seem to excel in sports, but the most obvious expression of that, being publicly played professional sports, is entirely absent. And why is that? Well, the answer sheds a lot of light on why societies function the way they do.
When Castro took over Cuba in its communist revolution, he simultaneously banned professional sports, and required amateur sports be played by all. He mandated exercises start for children even before they could walk, and made physical fitness an important part of each school day. Cubans were also forbidden from being paid to play any sport.
What happened was that Cubans became excellent at sports. They have done very well in international competition, despite having only a little more than 11 million people. But, whenever their teams visit other countries, their players run away.
Their baseball players all want to play in America. Their soccer players escape to South and Central America, and their distance swimmers are always turning up soggy in Florida. And Cuba is the most successful communist country in the world of sports.*
North Korean Baseball
The reason for this is that professional sports are one of the most pure forms of capitalism there is. If a baseball player can run fast, throw well, and hit home runs, he will make it to the Major Leagues. It doesn’t matter if he’s fat, if his father was an alcoholic, or what his political beliefs are. If he can play and his attitude is right, he will be drafted.
It also doesn’t matter if he was born with ridiculous talent and never had to work at it, or if he spent the last 4 years in the batting cages. All that matters is if he can play right now. If he can, he will be paid. If he plays well, his team wins. If his team wins, people watch the games. If people go to the games, the team makes money. If the team makes money, he gets more money. That is pure and simple capitalism.
This rule works in one way or another in every sport. But it is directly opposite of Communist principles.
If the game were played in North Korea, the roster would be determined by lottery. Any citizen could play. The players would make the same amount of money as the hot dog vendors, and would run or walk to base regardless of whether they hit the ball. All games would end in a tie, and the players would only work hard because they know that poor performance would land their families in jail. People would only come to the games because the government would give them free loaves of bread after everything was over.
Sound like something you’d like to be a part of? I doubt it.
The Big Show
But communist countries often do well at the Olympics. The reason is pretty simple. Communist countries are under a lot of pressure to prove that their system is superior. If their athletes win medals it shows the world that communism is prosperous. The athletes are working hard for personal accomplishment, but they are worked hard for government glory. Look at all of the antics with the North Korean soccer team, and this concept becomes quite apparent.
No one would want to go to a North Korean baseball game. But people get confused about aspects of socialism that lead to the same results. Scientists work harder when there is personal reward tied to their work. So do miners, fishermen, and doctors. That is natural.
In the same way that it makes no sense to take all achievement rewards out of a baseball game, it is foolish to do so in most other areas of life and work. That is why the American forefathers believed so passionately in capitalism and freedom. People work harder and smarter when there is an incentive to do so. It might seem callous to say that not everyone can play for the Yankees. But some are just too slow, or near sighted, or fragile. That is life. American sports have become so enjoyable because of its elite nature, and because of the money that generates. The best get to play. The rest, well they can find something else to do successfully. It worked for Stephen Hawking, and I wouldn’t want to watch him pitch.
Anyway, I have to get back to watching the game. -Ryan
*I did not discuss China, and its sports system, which was changed (like much in the Chinese economy) to more of a capitalist system in the late 1990’s. Thus, it cannot be seen as a fair example of sports in a Communist country. While the Communist Party has a complete lock on the political system, much of China is firmly capitalist today, which accounts for their recent economic success.