“This is the first time that all of our athletes have won gold,” says Song Nam Jang, head coach of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or PRK) weightlifting team in an interview provided to BarBend. “We trained more and harder, and we made many world records.”
Jang is referring to the DPRK’s performance at the recent 2024 Asian Weightlifting Championships, which ran in Tashkent, Uzbekistan from Feb. 3 to 10. The country sent 11 athletes to Asians this year, and 11 of them left as champions.
In the four months since the DPRK returned to international weightlifting competitions (following a hiatus that began in 2019), its women athletes alone have set 12 new world records, and more could come at the upcoming International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Cup in April. But the DPRK weightlifting team will not make any appearance at all at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Why? In short, they were given a chance and failed to take it.
The Paris Qualification System & the DPRK
The qualification period for the 2024 Olympic Games began on Aug. 1, 2022, and runs until Apr. 28, 2024. To be eligible, a country’s athletes must “participate” (weighing in without picking up the barbell counts) in at least five of the seven qualifier events such as the European Championships or Grand Prix. Two of the potential seven events are mandatory:
All athletes intending to compete in Paris must also make themselves available for rigorous drug testing at least three months before attending a qualifier event. Moreover, to be eligible for Paris, you also need to rank in the top 10 in your weight class in the world. If you miss the boat on too many of these requirements, you’re out of luck. But the DPRK’s situation is a bit more complicated than that.
Withdrawal From the Tokyo Olympics & Consequences
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics. The DPRK was the only country to withdraw from the Games before they ultimately began in August of 2021. As a consequence, the nation was banned from any and all Olympic sports until the end of 2022 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They also did not appear at last year’s Asian Championships in May.
After several years without external supervision and regular out-of-competition drug testing, the DPRK submitted paperwork to participate in the 2023 IWF Grand Prix in Havana, Cuba, in June. Their abrupt return led to outcries of protest from the weightlifting community — if Team PRK competed in Cuba, they could qualify for Paris 2024.
A rep within the International Testing Agency (ITA) even confirmed that no North Korean weightlifter had undergone out-of-competition drug testing since at least 2019 because ITA agents weren’t allowed into the country in the first place, nor had they been subjected to in-event testing.
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After consulting with the ITA, the IWF announced that North Korean weightlifters were eligible to partake in the Paris qualification procedure because they had not broken any specific IWF anti-doping rules (even though they could not, in reality, be tested). And they were told that the rules were changing: If North Korea wanted to keep competing, they would have to start admitting international drug testers.
But after all that commotion, Team PRK didn’t show up in Cuba for the Prix.
Team PRK is infamously secretive and gave no advance notice of their absence. One senior source within the IWF believes that Team PRK lacked the financial support to attend multiple major weightlifting events — but in recent months, the country has received “solidarity funding” from the IOC.
Why the DPRK went through all the trouble to get themselves into the Paris qualification system and then blow their chance by not attending the requisite competitions is unknown. But regardless, North Korea was simply too late to the party.
What Are the Implications?
Weightlifting is North Korea’s most-awarded Olympic sport. The country has won 18 Games medals in weightlifting, with their second-best sport, wrestling, producing only 10. But while Team DPRK was out of the game from 2019 until late 2023, their chief rival, China, enjoyed unprecedented success. China’s team of eight weightlifters won a record seven gold medals and one silver in Tokyo. The DPRK won’t contest China in Paris, but weightlifting was recently confirmed for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, so the next four years will tell a different story.
While the LA2028 weight classes remain unknown until a new qualifying program is drawn up, the rest of the world — including China, who have won at least five gold medals in weightlifting at every Games this century — is wary of Team PRK.
- As of Feb. 2024, PRK women own eight out of 12 potential world records in the lightest four weight classes.
- At the last worldwide IWF event in Dec. 2023, the DPRK won 9 out of 20 categories.
Team DPRK may not be eligible for Paris, but they can certainly play spoiler at the remaining qualifier event, giving China and all other countries a real fight for the top of the podium. Beyond that, weightlifting coaches all over the world are playing a guessing game about which Paris categories China will elect to send athletes to, as they would be overwhelmingly favored to win gold.
For Los Angeles 2028, that question will almost certainly extend to North Korea as well, particularly on the women’s side — combined and as of Feb. 2024, Chinese and North Korean women currently hold 23 out of the 25 senior world records.
If the People’s Republic is to qualify in 2028, it must comply with the IWF’s 2024 anti-doping policies. So far, they’re on track; the PRK, for the first time in many years, has begun allowing independent drug testers into the country.
At the end of 2023, the IWF published its testing data for the final quarter of the year, which showed that 24 North Korean weightlifters had been tested with zero positive results.
The 18 Team PRK weightlifters who have competed on IWF stages in the past four months have all been drug tested at least once, either during or outside of a competition. Their 11-strong winning team from the Asian Championships in Tashkent was tested, too. According to the ITA themselves, “conducting anti-doping activities in certain regions of the world can be particularly challenging,” due to geopolitical relations or, in some cases, armed conflicts.
“Despite the challenges, there has been successful out-of-competition testing activity on DPRK weightlifting athletes in recent months … [the ITA] is committed to conducting robust testing on weightlifters as much as possible.”
Disclaimer: Brian Oliver is an independent correspondent for BarBend. The views and opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect his own. Oliver is not directly affiliated with any of BarBend’s existing media partnerships.
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