Slate’s June Thomas points out that North Korea has made an impressive showing at the 2012 Olympics:
One of the countries that’s ahead of the Brits is, amazingly, North Korea. The DPRK has already won gold three times (tied for the third-largest haul behind China and the United States) and has four total medals—three in weightlifting and one in judo—tied for 8th overall.
She then asks — and thank you Ms. Thomas for putting it so poignantly –
How on earth could athletes from a nation of starving slaves perform so well?
Which is a good question. After all, the Olympics require more than, say, the infamous Mass Games, where complete obeisance to the state is enough to get a young gymnast through one performance a night for a couple months. But the Olympics? It would seem to require more than honor and patriotism to break world records. What is driving these athletes to succeed?
Readers familiar with the psychology of success in North Korea might have already guessed the cause.
According to one of the gold-medal winners, the credit goes to North Korea’s recently departed dear leader. When Om Yun-chol won in the 56-kilogram weightlifting category on Sunday, having lifted three times his body weight and equaled the world record in the clean and jerk, he told the Olympic News Service, “I believe the great Kim Jong-il looked over me.”
Of course he did.
And with the Dear Leader watching over his Olympians from beyond the grave — we all know that death is no obstacle to perennial vigilance — one can only imagine the lengths athletes will go to in order to please the former dictator:
As Reuters recently reported, the North Korean Olympics gymnastics team was short-handed because two athletes were banned for falsifying their ages. And during the 2011 Women’s World Cup, five North Korean soccer players tested positive for steroid use, although Pyongyang authorities claimed “they were using traditional Chinese medicine of deer musk to treat players hit by a lightning strike.”
Right. Because the odds of five athletes on the same team getting struck by lightening en route to the Olympics are remarkably high. And everyone knows the best cure for a lightening strike is pheromones from Beijing. Whatever you want to say about the DPRK mouthpiece, it sure is creative.
But maybe that’s not the real issue here.
Thus far, the biggest obstacle the North Korean women’s soccer team has faced in London has been an erroneous display of the South Korean flag prior to their opening match. Might this have been a super-secret motivational ploy perpetrated by the DPRK government to motivate its athletes? Probably not, but I’ll be watching the flagpoles just in case.
My question is: Can you imagine having to return to the DPRK after competing in the world’s greatest athletic event in one of the most prosperous countries in the world? What a cruel privilege for these talented athletes.