September 23, 2014 / 8:49 AM / 3 years ago

Love, eggs and ideas: the keys to NKorean weightlifting success

6 Min Read

North Korea's Om Yun Chol (L) and Kim Un Guk (R) pose with their gold medals during a news conference at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon September 23, 2014.Rob Dawson

INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - "Recipe for weightlifting success," by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Take one egg.

Add an idea.

Break a stone with said egg.

Voila.

North Korean weightlifters Om Yun Chol and Kim Un Guk faced the media at a news conference on Tuesday that was supposed to focus on their world records and gold medals from the Incheon Asian Games this week.

What transpired, however, was pure North Korean theater complete with an interfering translator, a puzzling proverb, and outpourings of affection for Kim Jong Un.

North Korean athletes have been tight-lipped here in Incheon, shepherded around the port city's sporting venues by minders and using reporters questions as a vehicle to declare their love for their country's leader.

Om and Kim are the standard-bearers of North Korea's impressive weightlifting squad but precious little is known about either of them.

Their Asian Games biographies, like those for all their country's athletes, contain only tiny slivers of information -- height, weight, date of birth, gender, sporting discipline.

Not quite 'name, rank and number' but along those lines.

Tuesday's news conference represented an opportunity to delve a little deeper into their personalities, their background, the motivations of two London Olympic gold medalists who set world records here in Incheon.

Instead, reporters barely managed to scratch the surface.

"I have a question for the journalists here," Om said.

"Have you ever heard that an egg can break a stone?"

Om's question had come in reply to an enquiry about his training methods. It was met with awkward silence and bewildered expressions, but Om soon cleared up the confusion.

"The respected marshal has told us that if we add an idea to an egg ... we can break the stone with that egg."

Om then sat back, seemingly confident he had explained how a 1.52 meters (five feet) tall North Korean athlete weighing just 56 kilograms (123 pounds) had managed to lift a barbell three times his own bodyweight above his head.

'Reign of Terror?'

Weightlifting is a sport in which the isolated country has excelled in recent years, despite its people suffering from widespread malnutrition and occasional food shortages.

Getting access to enough protein has been a particular concern for most of its population of 25 million.

Kim Jong Un took over when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011 and has spent the time consolidating his grip on power, having purged and executed his own uncle in what South Korean President Park Geun-hye described as a "reign of terror".

But Kim has nothing but love for his athletes.

Those that win, at least.

"In the past, not only for the 17th Asian Games, I had some trouble with my waist," said Kim Un Guk via his North Korean interpreter, though "lower back" would perhaps have been a more accurate translation.

"But thanks to the warm care of the Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un, I did not feel any trouble in treating the trouble on my waist. So, the warm care and great love of Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un has given me the opportunity to be the champion."

The North Korean leader has been at the heart of a state propaganda drive to turn the country into a "sports superpower," rewarding medal-winning athletes with luxury apartments, entertaining former NBA star Dennis Rodman and even trying his hand at coaching.

"Our Great Leader has improved all the sports facilities 100 percent and the popularity of weightlifting among North Koreans is very high," a North Korean coach told Reuters on Monday at the Moonlight Festival garden venue.

"We have a lot of young kids training in weightlifting now and Great Leader Kim Jong Un tries to showcase weightlifting as much as possible.

"We all eat the same things together and we train in good facilities, not just in Pyongyang but all over the country."

Prizes in Pyongyang

A North Korean team manager, who also declined to be named, said athletes were not concerned about what prizes awaited them in Pyongyang for bringing back gold.

"What we get in return for winning gold doesn't matter," he told Reuters. "When we train we just focus on how pleased Great Leader Kim Jong Un will be when he hears good news from our team.

"Great Leader Kim Jong Un loves all kinds of sports, especially weightlifting."

While Olympic and world champions are treated as heroes when they return, receiving apartments, cars and financial support, Kim Un Guk said bringing joy to the country was reward enough.

"We want nothing from anybody," he said.

"What we want to do is to give pleasure and happiness to our people and especially Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un.

"In the future I will do my best to achieve more gold medals in future Games to give pleasure and happiness to our people and to our Respected Marshall Kim Jong Un."

And with that they were off, the North Korean translator deciding enough questions for one day.

Breaking into a smile for the first time, Kim and Om waved to the cameras before disappearing off the stage, perhaps heading to the gym to train.

Or to add an idea to an egg.

Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by Patrick Johnston

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