The organisers of the Olympics seem to be. As sporting faux pas go, this is down there with the worst. And given that North and South Korea have been at war for seven decades, this was one rivalry that didn’t need provoking.
As the North Korean ladies’ football team walked off after the South Korean flag flashed up on the big screen, spectators must have Googled the flags and thought, ‘How on Earth can you get mixed up between a red and blue yin and yang design (South Korea) and a big red star (North Korea)?’
But over the years – as sod’s law would have it – these two countries have been drawn together many times in various sporting arenas. In 1993, the North was so gutted to lose 3-0 to its neighbours that it bowed out of international football for five years.
During the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, North Korea’s government couldn’t stomach South Korea’s national anthem being played in the national Kim Il-Sung stadium. The solution was to play the fixture in Shanghai, China. Luckily the result was a 1-1 draw; had there been a victor, tensions might have flared.
Indeed, in the current Olympics, North and South are set to play each other in the first round of the table tennis. With the South ranked second in the world and the North fifth, this should be a good game. But will tensions carry over from the football fiasco?
Both countries are hopeful of medals this time round. South Korea has 215 to its name and specialises in archery (Kim Soo-Nyung is the hero with four golds) in the Summer Games and short speed skating in the Winter Games. Its hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics was regarded as a major success, marred only by the Ben Jonson drug scandal.
North Korea’s record isn’t quite so impressive. Its medal tally of forty-three is partly explained by it having boycotted seven of the last twelve games. They have a decent record in boxing, judo, wrestling and weightlifting.
Kim Jong-Il, eccentric former dictator and star of Team America, was an excellent sportsman. Or so the state-controlled media tell us. Apparently he scored a perfect 300 on his first attempt at ten-pin bowling and achieved five holes in one and thirty-eight under par in his maiden round of golf. But Kim was harsh on those with less talent: when North Korea lost at football he’d send players to the coalmines.
Kim Jong-Il is no longer with us, but his meanness haunts the current Olympics: the North Korean team is semi-imprisoned in a secure compound, forbidden to do any sight-seeing and prevented from meeting with foreign athletes.
Amongst Koreans themselves, the sporting rivalry is less extreme than we might think. The relatively recent partitioning of the country (in 1950) means that there’s still a shared sense of nationhood.
So when the North plays anyone but the South, people in the South tend to support the North. And vice versa. In the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, the neighbours overcame their differences to march together in the opening ceremony. However, the North couldn’t bring itself to participate in the 1988 Games in Seoul. Its allies Cuba, Albania, Madagascar and the Seychelles – never great medal hopes – boycotted the competition in solidarity.
Whatever next? M.S. Dhoni walking out to bat amid a flurry of Pakistan flags the next time India takes on its old enemy in a Test match? ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ being played as the England players run on against Germany in the 2014 World Cup? Let’s hope not…!
If you want to learn more about these facinating countries, why not visit them with Explore to learn about their contrasting ideologies, politics and lifestyles.