Kim Jong-un demands five gold medals
The 2012 London Olympics went well for North Korea; they won four gold and two bronze medals, which is impressive considering they had 51 athletes competing. The London Olympics tie with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for the most gold medals won by North Korea. Kim Jong-un, however, wants North Korea to bring back an unlikely minimum of five gold medals despite only 31 North Korean athletes competing in Rio.
The North Koreans have competitive talent, and have won four medals already, though none are gold. Kim Song I played some beautiful table tennis to win bronze in women’s singles, finishing behind number one seed Ding Ning and defending gold medalist Li Xiaoxia. Om Yun-chol, who won gold in London, set an Olympic record for men’s 56kg weightlifting with a 169kg clean and jerk only to have Long Qingquan of China to break that record and the world record for combined weight lifted of 307kg. (You can see the lifts here.)
Image: Rio 2016
Most athletes would feel pretty good about breaking a record or only losing to two of the world’s best. But the stakes aren’t the same for the North Koreans. When American athletes are interviewed, they talk about how they think they could’ve done better or are pleased that they achieved a personal best. Om, while being the picture of graciousness towards Long, said, after breaking an Olympic record, he is not a hero for his people and “…it’s a pity that I didn’t perform well” because he won silver.*
It’s hard to say where else North Korea could win gold. They historically do well in weightlifting, judo and wrestling, and Rim Jong-sim is a favorite for women’s 75kg weightlifting. But despite what Om Yun-chol said, there’s a difference between doing well and winning gold.
There’s been some concern for the wellbeing of the North Korean athletes, though defectors say performance-based punishment does not occur, though some past athletes have been “purged” for political involvement. Granted, there’s so little information coming out of North Korea, it’s difficult to say what, if anything, will happen. My hope is that having Olympic-level talent is rare and special enough to keep them in the state’s good graces.
*In other awful news for the men’s 56kg medalists, bronze medalist Sinphet Kruaithong’s Grandma died while watching him compete.