What was it about Paddy Power cooperating with a tyrannical, murderous, paranoid, totalitarian regime that prompted second thoughts?
On Wednesday, a team of NBA players hand-picked by Dennis Rodman will square off against a North Korean team of players trained by Rodman for one of the most controversial games of basketball in history, but the game will now be proceeding without a sponsor, after the Irish bookmaking firm Paddy Power pulled its association with the project over Christmas.
Paddy Power’s withdrawal on Christmas Eve came just days after a spokesman for the company, Rory Scott, traveled to North Korea with Rodman for training. Scott told The Daily Beast from Pyongyang then that all was well, despite the fact that reports were even then surfacing of the purging of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.
On Monday, Scott spoke to The Daily Beast again, and confirmed that it was because of the killing of Jang Song-thaek that Paddy poWER withdrew its support (although financial contractual obligations are still being honored, and a Paddy Power financed film crew is making a documentary about the game called “The Big Bang in Pyongyang.”)
“Essentially the very public goings-on with the uncle and the way that was handled did trigger us to reconsider,” Scott said. “But we are still honoring our contractual obligations and that’s why the show is still going on, with all guns blazing.”
Was it anything that Scott saw when he was in Pyongyang that encouraged Paddy Power to drop the project?
“No. It was just a decision based on the fact that there had been a lot of international scrutiny of the regime and what happened wasn’t really something we wanted to be associated with.”
One wonders why this particular killing was so much more objectionable than, for example, the gulags to which Kim’s enemies are sent as a matter of course, but Scott won’t be drawn in. “We were there to support Dennis not the regime.”
But did they fear they were getting suckered into supporting the regime by proxy?
“We certainly never wanted to do that and possibly there was an element of that, but for us it was the fact of the goings-on with the uncle that got too much,” he says carefully.
When The Daily Beast spoke to Scott when he was in Pyongyang, the clicks and grumbles on the phone line were inescapably obvious. Did it feel like he was being monitored at all times when he was out there? Was it a bizarre place to visit?
“It was certainly interesting. But we were treated very well. The training was great. Dennis spent two or three days with the North Korean players picking the team, coaching them and getting them ready. There was a lot of excitement obviously from the players, but also from the officials involved. The Olympic committee, of whom we were the guests, were taking the sporting exchange very seriously and were very excited by it.”
So was it simply the reports of the purging of the uncle which persuaded them to change their minds? “Yes it was. Circumstances changed. We changed our mind as a result that.”
In retrospect were they a bit gung ho? “We went into it with our eyes wide open. We never would’ve embarked on such a project without expert guidance. We worked with the International Crisis Group, who are a very well-regarded NGO and they said what we were doing was very, very positive. But worldwide scrutiny and condemnation of the regime over the past few weeks was pretty intense and we felt we had to respond to that.”
Journalist John Sweeney who traveled to North Korea undercover with a group of students wrote a damning critique of the artifice and fake setups produced for tour groups in North Korea. Did Scott experience a similar thing?
“It was strange there. We very much did one of those token North Korean tours where we would go to a wonderful facility, a sporting facility, with what appeared to be brand spanking new facilities, and hydrotherapy pools and every piece of kit and instrument that you can imagine, but no people, which was very strange. You could do a tour for an hour and barely see anyone. You would see computers with the plugs still in their wrapping, or 40 pigeonholes with one piece of paper in them.”
Asked what he believes would be the best possible scenario for the next few days, Scott responds, “It would be nice if we could get 12 Americans to play basketball with 12 Koreans and they can laugh and joke and get on well, and prove that sport can rise above the news agenda, because that’s what Dennis set out to do.”
Rodman’s USA squad—reportedly featuring ex-All Stars Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, guard Doug Christie and Charles D. Smith, (who played for the New York Knicks) arrived in Pyongyang today.
Let’s hope Kim doesn’t feed them to the dogs if they win.