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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Tales of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon Race

by | April 13th, 2013 | 02:51 pm
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Py marathon poster resized 2

One more sign that the North Koreans are bluffing (or have utter disregard for the safety of really fast Kenyans) will be the running in a few hours of the Pyongyang marathon. Back in 2001, during one of those tentative periods of opening, the Financial Times was induced to become a corporate sponsor of the race.  In this connection, my former assistant (and former Princeton cross-country runner), Alex Harney, then a correspondent for the FT, now a writer of books on China, was sent to Pyongyang as part of the FT delegation.  Dealing with an injury at the time, she managed to beg off the full marathon, but ran the half. Another FT correspondent, Jack Burton, was induced to march in the opening ceremony dressed as a Mongolian in order to boost the number of countries represented.

As race time approached, the foreigners, who apart from FT hacks, included some fast Kenyans (are there any slow ones?), were told to assemble at one end of the stadium. A Kenyan had won the previous year, and as the Kenyan contingent began stretching, putting on their shoes, etc. suddenly, at the other end of the stadium, a gun sounded and the North Koreans took off.  Alex and Jack report that the Kenyans were very, very angry at this obvious and juvenile breach of fair play, and quite methodically ran down the North Koreans.  Apparently it takes more than a few hundred yard head start to best determined Kenyans in a 26 mile race. Needless to say, none of this made it into the pages of the FT, and a North Korean officially won the race.

Alex did bring me back some souvenirs, however. The fading Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon Race pictured above (look carefully and you can see Fila and the FT listed as corporate sponsors) and a genuine Pyongyang International Marathon t-shirt shown below.  In honor of Austin, the capital of Texas, and apparently one of the American cities targeted for nuclear annihilation in Kim Jong-un’s ersatz photo-op, I am holding my medal from the Austin marathon.  In that race, I ran a 2:30 (Ryan-time), that is a 3:34 (reality).

Py marathon t shirt resized