North Korea's 'marathon diplomacy' targets Hong Kong runners

For the first time, organisers open up the race to amateurs from overseas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 12:31am

"Marathon diplomacy" has taken on new meaning in North Korea with the secretive state opening up the Pyongyang International Marathon to non-professional athletes. And Hong Kong runners are being targeted as competitors.

With the world again focused on North Korea thanks to Dennis Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" visit with a group of former NBA players, the country has opened up its IAAF-sanctioned marathon, which previously invited only elite athletes.

Despite an almost constant stream of media reports citing one problem or another, there has been a steady rise in the number of sports events being staged during the past few years, including this week's visit by Rodman.

The Pyongyang marathon starts and finishes in the Kim Il-sung Stadium and includes four laps of a 10-kilometre loop of the city that takes in landmarks such as the Arch of Triumph, Kim Il-sung University and the People's Army Acrobatic Theatre.

There will also be a 21.1km half marathon and a 10km race, both of which will be run over the same traffic-free course in April.

Hannah Barraclough, of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has experience in arranging sporting event-based trips to North Korea, said allowing non-elite runners to compete in this year's marathon marks a milestone in the 27-year history of the event.

"It is certainly unusual for non-elite runners to be allowed to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon," Barraclough said.

"We have been trying to get additional entries for the past seven years. However, the marathon committee has always requested only elite runners, so we have been unable to gain places for those who don't have such fast times."

All visitors are usually required to be accompanied by a government-appointed guide, and many potential marathon runners might find this offputting.

Sai Kung-based distance runner Rachel Sproston said she would be interested in running the half marathon if she did not need a chaperone for the duration of the trip. "I've competed in many overseas distance races and like to stay on for a day or two after the race to explore and enjoy the local culture," said Sproston. "I am not sure how much fun this would be with the current limitations on tourists in Pyongyang."

Another distance runner with extensive experience of foreign races said he would not be including the event on his 2014 racing schedule. "While I understand sports should be separated from politics, I just don't like the way the country is being run and would feel empathy for its people no matter how warm the reception," said Keith Chan Wah-kwai. "As such I am not interested in travelling to Pyongyang at all."

Ethiopia's Ketema Bekele Negassa won the marathon last year in two hours, 13 minutes and three seconds, while home favourite Kim Mi-gyong took the women's title in 2:26:31.