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Former North Korean national athlete describes Olympic selection and training procedure

Jang Seul Gi  |  2018-01-26 12:05
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has approved North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, confirming 22 athletes in 5 sports: figure skating, short track speed skating, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, and ice hockey. The athletes are expected to arrive at the Olympic Village in Gangneung on February 1, one week before the February 8 opening ceremony.

With the final announcement coming only two weeks before the opening of the games, many are questioning how the athletes are training and if they will be ready. We spoke with former national athlete for North Korea Lee Ji Young, now living in South Korea, about the Olympic selection and training procedure in the North.

Unification Media Group (UMG): What kind of training will the athletes be going through right now, having only just learned of their participation in the Olympics?

Lee Ji Young (Lee): Although the official announcement has only come now, the authorities had probably already selected athletes and ordered training to begin some time ago.

And although of course the athletes may be training for their events, more importantly they will be going through intense ideological education because theyre going to an event abroad – and South Korea of all places. The goal of the education is to make sure they dont say anything disparaging about the North Korean system and to prevent them from becoming enamored with South Korea while staying there. They will be extremely exhausted right now from the lengthy ideological education on top of the physical training. Despite this, I think theyre still excited at the prospect of going to the Olympics.

UMG: How do winter sports athletes train during summer in North Korea?

Lee: I was in an athletics club outside the capital, and there were short track speed skaters and figure skaters in our group. Its not easy for these athletes to train because there are no proper ice rinks out there. So during summer, these athletes just do physical training like hiking or swimming in the ocean.

The government selects and orders training for future figure skaters from the very young age of 4 or 5. The aim is to hone the flexibility of young children before their bones fully develop. They also order figure skating training for children doing gymnastics, seeing a connection between the two sports. But winter sports have not developed much in North Korea due to low government investment and the short time in which athletes can train on natural ice in winter.

UMG: How are athletes selected to represent North Korea in international competitions?

Lee: It differs depending on the sport, but typically athletes are selected by local athletics club directors or by coaches or judges (who pass on recommendations for potential selection) at national-level competitions like the Mangyongdae or Pochonbo tournaments.

There are situations where people use bribes or their influence to be selected, but for the most part, the national athletes are the elites who have trained at length in the sports clubs and demonstrated their skills.

UMG: What is the status of these athletes in society?

When I was a national athlete in the 1990s, my monthly income was three times higher than the average worker. This will also depend on whether the athlete is a key player or just a substitute, but the government can also provide a car and other amenities, and there are bonuses for athletes when they participate in an international competition.
And while the salary for athletes is better than the average worker, the biggest attraction is getting a chance to go to Pyongyang. Most people in North Korea will never in their life have an opportunity to visit the capital city, but athletes look forward to the chance to compete or train in Pyongyang. And if you become a representative athlete for the nation, then you can even travel abroad for competitions, so athletes have a kind of romantic idea of these possibilities.

As for daily life, athletes in North Korea are provided housing, food, uniforms, sports equipment, and other things, but the national-level athletes have access to substantially better facilities than athletes outside the capital. They also have access to about as much meat as they want.

And while life for athletes was good before, it has gotten even better under Kim Jong Un. This is because he seems to love sports like skiing, basketball, and others. So the status of athletes has naturally risen due to his support for sports and athletics.

UMG: What kinds of bonuses or awards do athletes receive if they win a medal in international competition?

Lee: Well, not many North Korean athletes have won medals in international competitions, so probably because its rare, the award is substantial. First, they will receive Workers' Party membership and the honorary titles of "National Hero" and "Hero of Labor." Then they will be given an apartment in Pyongyang for themselves and their family, and sometimes even a foreign luxury car like a Mercedes Benz.

An individual's life can completely change if they win a medal, but for the most part, athletes consider the act of competing abroad itself as most important. The athletes will consider it an honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

UMG: How is life for athletes after they retire from competition?

Lee: First, national athletes are not allowed to get married until a certain age. Females are not allowed until age 26. You have to just devote your entire life to the country throughout this time.

But at least the life of an athlete is stable and secure. And when they retire from competition, they almost always move on to become sports club directors, coaches, or work in other staff positions. There are also some cases where they move on to other elite positions such as a foreign currency-earner (trader).

Members of the North Korean women's ice hockey team in Gangneung at the 2017 IIHF
Women's World Championship. Some will return to the same city as part of the combined team
with South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics . Image: Yonhap News Agency

UMG: Lastly, what do you think of the combined North-South women's ice hockey team that will be competing next month?

Lee: Honestly I was very moved when I heard the news. I know that many are criticizing the decision as it will deprive some South Korean athletes of their spots on the team, and this criticism is valid, but the positive thing is that the North Korean athletes can learn from their South Korean teammates.
Personally, I've also competed with an intramural team in South Korea with South Korean teammates, and I learned of the differences between the two sports environments and different approaches to training. Of course the South has better facilities, better quality and professional training. But North Korean athletes, with sub-standard facilities and oppressive training conditions, have clear goals and a strong will. I hope the women from both countries can have a positive influence on each other and at the Pyeongchang Olympics, which may lead to a stronger showing.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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