But others, including former North Korean athletes who have defected, suggest the success of the country’s small contingent of athletes at the Games may be the result of a policy of training them from a very young age at specialised schools, backed up by rewards like cars and refrigerators for winners and the threat of labour camps for losers.
The country has won two gold medals in men’s weightlifting, one in women’s weightlifting and one in women’s judo. Another reason behind North Korea’s unexpected success at the Olympics is training athletes from a very young age at specific schools. The communist nation has 56 athletes competing in 11 sports, and hopes for additional medals lie in boxing, wrestling, diving, table tennis, judo, and archery.
The best Olympic result in the past for them was four gold medals and five bronzes in Barcelona 1992. “Athletes in North Korean society are revered as elites, and they are managed, trained, and supported on a national level,” Woo-Young Lee, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul was quoted as saying.
The North Korean Olympians are aware that they will be rewarded with a huge jump in social status with the title of ‘hero’ or ‘people’s athlete’, and that drives them to perform more spiritedly.
But poor performances, especially losing to enemy nations like the United States or South Korea, can have consequences too.
Rumours of athletes being sent directly to labour camps upon arriving home are not confirmed, but it is a common procedure to open ‘review meetings’ after the sports events in which participants ‘assess’ their own and each other’s games, said a North Korean defector to the South, Kim Yo-Han.
Football team punished for World Cup failure
In June 2010, the North Korean soccer team dropped out of the World Cup without a point after conceding 12 goals in three games. The players were forced to endure a six hour session of criticism from sports commentators, athletes, students and politicians.