Why The Women of North Korea Are The Most Interesting Olympians

It's the Olympics, which means Chinese flag manufacturers are working overtime to churn out the oversized Old Glories in which Team USA will be swaddled for their heart-tugging televised NBC Moments. But I've found myself obsessing over athletes that will never be the subject of a network capsule bio: The women of the North Korean Olympic team. Skilled and mysterious, they are one of the most interesting stories of the games.

The weird opening ceremony hasn't even come off, and the North Korean Olympic bid is already falling into the typical storyline of controversy and intrigue. On Wednesday, Olympics organizers proved themselves incapable of Googling when they introduced the North Korean women's soccer team using the South Korean flag at their opening match against Colombia. The team stormed off, and only a hasty apology from the highest echelons of the Olympic organization could coax them back onto the field an hour later.

The flag controversy completely overshadowed the fact that North Korea went on to trounce their Colombian opponents, 2-0. The North Korean women's team is good. Surprisingly good. The young and inexperienced team that hails from a country whose citizens are being increasingly starved by their leaders is second only to Japan in Asia. "Fantastic," is how U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly described them.

Nobody would ever mistake North Korea's men's team for "fantastic."

One of the most fascinating aspects of North Korea's Olympic bid is that women are by far the dominant force in North Korean international athletics, according to SinoNK North Korea analyst Benjamin Young. And their preeminence is in typically male sports. In the 2008 Beijing games, all but one of North Korea's five medals were won by women, including both golds. In London, North Korea's female weightlifters, judo fighters and soccer team are among the strongest of their 51-member olympic squad, according to Young.

North Korea women's prowess in these sports is all the more remarkable given that North Korean society is so patriarchal that in 1996 North Korean officials banned bicycling in Pyongyang for women because it wasn't seen as sufficiently female. Back in the 80s, the government saw female participation in traditionally male sports as a sign of capitalism's ultimate corruption. "The rotten and diseased world of capitalism does not spare women from kicking a ball," wrote an official publication in the early 1980s. But today, the best North Korean soccer coaches actually prefer coaching the women's teams over the men, according to South Korean journalist Joo Seong-Ha.

This imbalance has prompted some experts to draw conclusions about the North. Joo Seong-Ha offered the rather questionable analysis for why the women's soccer team so outperforms their male counterparts: "North Korean women's innate toughness must have played a factor. As the proverb goes, 'Southern men, northern women.'" (South Korean men are thought to be strong and handsome, while North Korean women are strong and beautiful.)

But the North Korean women's preemincence says more about the structure of international athletics than the character of North Korean women. The men's competition is more intense, which means North Korean women aren't as handicapped by the country's isolation and poverty. They "get access to just as many facilities and coaches domestically [as men], and the worldwide game for women isn't as high in quality relative to the men's," said Gerard Clare, who's been covering North Korean soccer for NKnews.com.

If North Korea's female athletes were American, they'd be in the middle of a few weeks of instant media stardom. Women athletes in male-dominated sports are now as hot as any old-fashioned hot athlete. A couple weeks ago, the internet was caught up in the irresistible double whammy underdog/stereotype-shattering tale of the poor weightlifter Sarah Robles, who couldn't find a sponsor to send her family to London because she was, in her words, "a girl who's built like a guy." Female boxers—winners and losers alike—have become media sensations in advance of the first Olympic female boxing tournament.

But the sparse North Korean media coverage of their athletes, who are reportedly in seclusion in London, offers a fascinating contrast to our own. The only human interest story featuring a North Korean athlete I could find was a profile of female weightlifter Jong Chun Mi, the gold medal winner in this year's Asian Weightlifting Championship, from the North Korean magazine Korea Today. Chun Mi's father, a retired military officer, tells the journalist the story about how he and his wife had decided to raise her as a "teacher or accountant." They told her of their decision the day after she graduated. But Chun Mi had other ideas:

"Chun Mi told us earnestly, ‘I know what you are talking about. As you know, I completed the 11-year free compulsory education with no worries in the warm embrace of the country. Now it is my turn to repay the country. I'll be a sportswoman to add glory to the motherland, which you have defended with your whole life in military uniform.' That day we were all surprised to learn her unexpected maturity."

Then there's North Korea's incredibly weird history of cheating. The case of Olympic gymnast Hong Su Jong, who listed three different birthdays to hide her underage status—ranging from 1985-1989—over her career, was brazen enough. But if freestyle doping were an Olympic sport, the North Korea's women's soccer team would take the gold.

During last year's women's World Cup, five of its players tested positive for steroids, which led them to be banned from the 2015 World Cup. North Korea's official explanation for their test results were incredible: They blamed traditional musk deer gland therapy given to the players who were injured in a lightning strike during practice. In another country, such a scandal—"the worst doping scandal in almost two decades"—would prompt a national soul-searching. In North Korea, they offered only the explanation as believable as North Korea media reports that dead North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shot 11 holes-in-one and 38-under par in his first-ever golf game.

The almost comical lengths North Korea goes to win makes you to wonder: What are they afraid might happen if they lose? The old saw is that failed athletes are sent off to labor camps. Which, OK, did happen to many members of North Korea's 1966 World Cup team after they lost to Portugal in the quarterfinals. But the team's exile was more likely because they fell on the wrong side of a political purge, not because they didn't win.

In fact, North Korea has modest expectations for London.

"It is not a huge problem for them if they are not capable of winning gold medals in various disciplines," North Korea expert Brian Myers told the Guardian. "If they get a few they will chalk that up to their unique moral strength and the athletes will thank the leader for inspiring them."

This is good news for the North Korean women's soccer team. As good as they are, they'll face a tough challenge against the number-one ranked U.S. team, when they meet on Tuesday. Barring some new weird controversy or incredible upset, this is probably the last you'll hear about any woman from North Korea who isn't married to Kim Jong-un.

[Image via Getty]