Mon, Dec 29, 2014 - Page 18 News List

A Pyongyang race? Now that is entertainment

By Jere Longman  /  NYT News Service, New York

After the scarf, pistachios and white-noise machine were unwrapped, our daughter gave us the most exotic Christmas present — a streaming version of The Interview, Seth Rogen’s assassination comedy about North Korea’s authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-un.

Despite a raunchy and mostly repellent start, the film had its absurdist charms, including Katy Perry’s music and Kim’s obsession with basketball.

It brought to mind a 2009 article in the Washington Post, which noted that Kim, while attending boarding school in Switzerland, was quiet, awkward around girls and “spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.”

The movie only increased my desire to run in what is sure to be the most fascinating sporting event of next year: The Pyongyang Marathon, a four-lap race through North Korea’s capital on April 12.

Beginning this year, North Korea opened the marathon — and a related half-marathon and 10km race — to amateur international runners.

About 225 runners from 27 nations competed, according to news accounts. Tens of thousands of spectators lined the course, including women in traditional dress who held flowers.

Of course, my entry is not exactly guaranteed. If I tell the North Korean organizers that I work for the New York Times, they may not let me in. If I do not tell them, they may not let me out.

But hey, a fellow can dream.

Technically, I have never been inside the hermit nation. However, I did visit the Joint Security Area inside the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea while traveling with the US men’s soccer team at the 2002 World Cup.

Only a concrete slab resembling a sidewalk separated the two countries. South Korean guards stood in a ritual taekwondo stance on one side, fists clenched at their sides, feet spread. Visitors to a conference room straddling the border were cautioned not to be alarmed if the North Korean guards offered a certain internationally recognized, one-finger salute.

On several occasions, I have encountered the odd enterprise that is North Korean sports. During the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the US, North Korea’s team exited in group play, but not before a number of players had taken advantage of free dental care.

Four years later, the Women’s World Cup returned to the US after a SARS epidemic forced the tournament’s relocation from China. At a hotel outside Philadelphia, I met up with the North Koreans, who were being hosted by a guy who ran a rib joint in Hackensack, New Jersey.

The garrulous chef, Robert Egan, was also president of a trade organization that sought to improve relations between the two countries. He cooked for the North Koreans that night, at one point sticking his head out of the kitchen and shouting: “Mr Pak, have we solved the nuclear crisis yet?”

Team officials broke into laughter.

Egan also tried to land corporate sponsorships for the team, to no avail. Perhaps because his proposal for a softdrink commercial featured a nuclear explosion that would detonate as a North Korean player kicked the ball.

“Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor?” Egan asked.

At the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa, FIFA repeatedly intervened to prohibit questions about North Korea. Unanswered were such gems as: Was North Korea’s coach really receiving tactical instruction on an invisible cellphone invented by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il?

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