North Korea marathon welcomes fun-runners

Under starter's orders, a packed stadium watches as foreign runners join North Korean athletes in Pyongyang. Picture: AP
Under starter's orders, a packed stadium watches as foreign runners join North Korean athletes in Pyongyang. Picture: AP
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The streets of North Korea’s showcase capital were filled with athletes from all over the world for the annual Pyongyang marathon yesterday, which was open to foreign amateurs for the first time.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans lined the streets to applaud, cheer and sometimes high-five the runners, who were followed by a lorry blaring out patriotic music. They stood and roared as North Korea’s Pak Chol, who completed the men’s event in 2 hours, 12 minutes and 26 seconds, crossed the finish line. Compatriots Kim Hye Gyong and her twin sister, Kim Hye Song, finished first and second in the women’s race.

Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years.

Organisers allowed foreign recreational runners because they wanted to hold a grander race, as part of the series of sporting competitions, arts festivals and cultural events marking the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on 15 April.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues, plazas and ubiquitous monuments, is more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

Opening the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North’s continuing effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to showcase.

Officials said runners from 27 countries took part this year, including 225 amateurs.

“I really wanted to do this race because of the location,” said 
10k runner Jen Skym, a 32-year-old Briton living in Hong Kong, who is also four months pregnant.

“The scenery was fantastic, and there were so many people watching. It was good motivation to get back into running. I really enjoyed it.”

Runners on the generally flat, full-marathon course did four loops around the centre of the city of 2.5 million, starting at Kim Il Sung Stadium. The capacity crowd of 42,000 spectators back in the stadium were treated to football games and martial arts exhibitions while they waited for the runners to return.

Earlier this year, North Korea’s government announced a plan to create special trade and tourism zones across the country and unveiled its first luxury ski resort, aimed largely at luring enthusiasts from abroad. Under the watch of young leader Kim Jong Un, sport has achieved a higher profile.

Recreational facilities, such as outdoor basketball courts and roller skating rinks, have been popping up lately in Pyongyang and some other cities.

“I go to international races every year, but this one just strikes me as the most unique,” said Jacob Young, of Nova Scotia, Canada. “It’s very novel. Usually I would imagine it’s the tourists here looking out at the local people. Here, it’s them looking at us. We are the show.”

To keep the show from becoming too colourful, however, the foreign runners were instructed not to carry US or Japanese flags, or wear clothing with large writing or anything deemed inappropriate or political. Runners said they were also not allowed to carry cameras during the race, though they snapped away afterwards inside the stadium.

“We just had to wear regular running clothes,” said Will Erskine, of Melbourne, Australia. “Some might have wanted to shoot pictures the whole time. But I don’t think it was all that unusual. It was a good experience.”