A new friend of a friend of mine returned to Azerbaijan yesterday, tying together two events that on the surface had previously appeared to be unrelated: the death of piano virtuoso Van Cliburn, and the diplomatic media mission of NBA peculiaruoso Dennis Rodman to visit North Korean Ruler Kim Jong Un.
This guy, raised in sunny California, now speaks Azeri and has established a recreation center in an impoverished region to provide a place for youths to use a climbing wall, play football, learn basketball, and begin wrestling competitively. It seems inconsequential, until you view footage of the recent World Cup freestyle championship held in Iran last month. U.S. Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burrows received an unstoppable standing ovation when he walked into the arena. The all-male Iranian audience, apparently not imminent cannon fodder, forgot that America is the great satan and cheered on one of us with more joy and passion than he might have received if the competition was held in our own media-drenched land.
So why is this American guy running a rec center in Azerbaijan? Because he can’t sing.
This guy believes that sports – as well as music – have the power to transcend cultural barriers. Athletes and musicians can walk across battle lines and break bread with enemies. Once conversations begin, the risk that peace might break out increases.
Breaking News: This just in…Athletes and musicians might be superheroes.
In the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, 23-year-old Louisiana-born and Texas-bred Van Cliburn won the top honors. New York Times foreign correspondent Max Frankel wrote that affection and praise enveloped Van Cliburn in the middle of the Cold War from the Soviet people in an unprecedented way because it was safe.
Beyond politics, people from different lands can have difficulties maintaining grudges. In a time when global nuclear war was a viable option to superpowers, the nameless and faceless Soviet enemy had an opportunity to give affection to Van Cliburn, to someone who had shown respect for a beloved part of their culture. Perhaps it was because that artist was suddenly no longer nameless and faceless. They didn’t risk retaliation for not representing the party line in hatred, so they were able to blur out politics in favor of applause.
But how far will the superpowers of athletes and musicians take us? Dennis Rodman traveled all the way to North Korea and was reportedly the first American to meet face with the Beloved Son. They allegedly partied heartily in the midst of their photo-op facilitated by the HBO shoot of the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition game there. As he departed the country, Rodman said that he loved this ruler who is adored by his people. His words. And the State Department is possibly having a temper tantrum and is currently refusing to make any public overtures to find out what in the heck is going on, despite North Korea’s recent underground nuclear test that has heightened concerns.
While Van Cliburn’s victory was a three point homerunned touchdown, Rodman may have struck the wrong key. Celebrating with a dictator who has thus far sustained policies which lead to widespread starvation and other hardships for his citizens is moral kryptonite. But perhaps this young ruler needs time to distance himself from atrocities instigated by his predecessor, uncomfortably his father. Generational disrespect might be less acceptable in some circles than playing chicken with nuclear warheads.
If Dennis Rodman is now accepted as a diplomatic virtuoso, it is difficult to say if things are better or worse.
However, I thought we were all going to get blown away by Supreme Leader when “Team America” first came out in theaters. North Korea showed astounding restraint, though despite arguably being “…show wonwe…”
Maybe there is hope. Hope so.
Quote of the Blog, from Jimi Hendrix: “…When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Image of Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un at the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition game in North Korea, courtesy of CBS News.