Triathlon in North Korea

I’ve always been fascinated with North Korea. Almost completely closed off to the world, isolated, and oppressed, the I’ve wondered how the people live and how they perceive the west.

So I visited a few years back to see for myself. At the time, although I was only getting started in triathlon, I kept my eyes peeled for anything related to swim, bike, or run.

But with a caste-like system known as songbun, only the most elite can ever participate in real leisure activities, to say nothing of triathlon or endurance sports.

I knew living there was more about survival than anything else, so it would be hard to find other athletes.

How can you go out and cycle when you probably are worried about where you’re going to get your next meal?

As stated by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological and safety needs must be taken care of before you can even think of reaching the top of the pyramid: Belonging, esteem, or self-actualization.

How can you reach the top of you can’t even get enough food or shelter?

And with no internet or foreign media, most North Koreans likely don’t even know about this odd trifecta of pain we call triathlon.

Yet, there have been elite triathletes from DPRK that have participated in international triathlons.

There are world-class runners there.

And as for swimming, well, the only thing I could find was synchronized swimming and one Paralympic athlete – more on him below.

TRIATHLETES

I searched far and wide, and could only turn up five triathletes in the country.

Four competed in the 2003 Seorak ITU Triathlon Asian Cup in South Korea, and one in the 1999 Montreal ITU Triathlon World Championships.

The only North Korean triathletes I could find

They seem to have placed ok, not great, but certainly respectably. I emailed the Sports in the DPR Korea organisation, the nation’s international sports body, but have not heard back (I’m not holding my breath, either.)

A thorough review of the excellent Sports in the DPR Korea website reveals no triathletes, swimmers, or cyclists.

There were a few mentions of some of North Korea’s great marathoners – more on these guys in a minute – but what caught my eye was this excellent anecdote:

A young man, utterly ignorant of sports, used to break in talks about sports pretending to have its wide knowledge.

One day his workteam, during recess, held a chat about sports.
When a marathoner who had won an international contest some days ago was mentioned, he interposed, “He must have made good results in the preliminary match, as he won the finals.”

This brought laughter.

“Hey, guy, there is no preliminary in marathon.”

Nevertheless, when the chat turned into judo, he interrupted again, “How many scores the bronze-medallist has gained to become champion?”

How ridiculous he was.

A middle-aged sports fan scolded him, saying, “You, bastard. Shut your mouth without any sports knowledge.”

Source

What that was about I have no idea, but it’s characteristic of the type of anecdote / joke and lost-in-translation thinking of the Hermit Kingdom.

RUNNING IN NORTH KOREA

No doubt, the country does have a few world-class marathon runners, such as Kang Bom Ri, who did a 2:11:19 in 2019.

This guy had the worst luck ever when, as he led the marathon and was about to cross the finish, he accidentally followed a truck a few hundred meters off course before realizing his mistake.

In the meantime, he was passed by Japan’s Daichi Kamino in Dongguan.

Ri lost by just three seconds.

Ri realizing he just gave up 1st place in Dec 2019, Dongguan, China. Photo: World Athletics

The DPRK’s best woman marathoner could be Kwang-Ok Ri (are they related?) who finished 14th at the World Championships in Doha.

Also, she achieved a 2:26:58 at the Mangyongdae Prize Marathon, Pyongyang.

That’s a run you can do, too. Really.

Every April (except last year and this year due to Covid) the Pyongyang Marathon attracts runners from all over the world.

It’s even certified bronze by IAAF.

It starts and ends at the Kim Is-sung Stadium and you can register here if you’re so inclined.

When I visited, I managed to get a run in. I was staying at the Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang, and although we were not allowed to leave the hotel grounds, we could roam freely around it but since it was on an island, we were contained (ironic, right).

So I did a few laps around this little river island.

Here’s a short clip of me running in DPRK

Watch my short clip above.

CYCLING

How about cycling? There are plenty of bikes in DPRK, but mostly ancient steel bikes that are used for work or for basic transportation around town.

These are certainly not luxury sporting goods

There is a UN ban on the sale of what’s called “luxury sporting goods” to North Korea, and this would include performance bikes, of course.

Once country, however, has consistently overlooked that ban, and that’s Switzerland.

I’m not sure why, but it could have something to do with Switzerland being neutral. Still, I’d think they would follow the ban.

Incidentally, Kim Jong Un went to secondary school in Bern, Switzerland.

Switzerland had to halt the sale of new ski lifts to the Maksik Pass ski resort Kim Jong Un built a few years back. They were replaced by used Chinese ski lifts – quite a downgrade I’d imagine.

Other Swiss items I found were low-end Swiss watches being sold in gift shop of the hotel I stayed in.

So to my point here, about bikes: The one performance bike I did see in North Korea was Swiss.

This is the highway between Pyongyang and the norther part of the country. Looks like an ideal cycling road to me.

Yep, I saw two guys on BMCs, being escorted by a guy on a motorcycle. Top songbun, no doubt.

But that’s all I saw.

SWIMMING

Like cycling, I couldn’t find much on North Korean swimmers, except one Paralympic athlete. Rim Jo Song became the country’s first Paralympic athlete.

North Korea is not traditionally known for its reputation with the disabled, so this is noteworthy.

A search on FINA, the world body governing swimming, showed zero results by any athletes from DPRK.

On DPRK’s official sports website, there are mentions of a few divers and artistic swimmers, but nothing else.

Even DPRK’s participation in international swimming events only seems to include synchronized swimming and diving.

While visiting, I did see two pools. One was in the basement of the hotel. Of course it had a diving board. I went down to swim in this 25m pool on my first night and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was heated.

It was an old and slightly-run down facility, but was certainly decent, but was only reserved for tourists, not locals.

Later, on a trip outside the city, I saw what looked to be an empty public pool, kind of out in the middle of nowhere.

So don’t expect to join any swim squads on your visit to DPRK.

And whatever you do, don’t beat the locals in the marathon.

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