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North Koreans dominate at international marathon


15 April 2001 – Pyongyang - At least 200,000 North Koreans wildly cheered 51 foreign runners allowed to compete in the groundbreaking Pyongyang International Marathon on Sunday, but they could not beat the best from the communist nation.

Americans, Japanese and Britons were among the 24 nations represented.

But Kim Jong On, husband of North Korea's women's world marathon champion Jong Song Ok, won the men's race in a personal best time of 2hrs 11min 48sec. Gong Yong Ok (2:12.23) was second.

Chong Yong Ok won the women's race in a course record of 2hrs 28min 36sec, more than two-and-a-half minutes faster than the previous best. North Korean women took all top 10 positions.

The race was one of the centrepiece events for the birthday of the North's late founding leader Kim Il Sung.

There were 70,000 people in the packed Kim Il-Sung Stadium. And the 500 runners raced past lines of Pyongyang citizens along the streets, playing traditional music and queuing for specially rationed food for the main holiday of the year.

It was the first time that uninvited foreign runners have been allowed and also marked a major breakthrough for sponsored sport in the rigidly controlled country.

Four international companies paid several hundred thousand dollars to be associated with the event.

Kim Jong On's wife Jong won the World title in Seville in 1999 and retired months later having become a national heroine. The couple were only married two months ago.

Kim, who won 3,000 dollars, said: "I have trained every day for this race under the guidance of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and I am now determined to bring glory to my country at the World Championships in August."

The race was a selection meeting for the world championships.

The foreigners had little answer to the home power.

Eshetu Bekele of Ethiopia was third in the men's race in 2:13.52 setting a personal best in his first marathon outside his native country. Kim Gillard of Australia was fifth in 2:15.13, making him the leading Australian in qualification for the World Championships. "I came here thinking it would be badly organised but it was well done. After we had been here a couple of days they brought in special food just for us," he said.

International organisers gave the North Korean authorities a list of food for the athletes, including pasta, fresh fruit and vegetables that was specially imported from China, officials said.

In the women's race, Banuelia Mrashini of Tanzania and Trudi Thomson, a member of Scotland's Commonwealth Games squad, were the only two foreigners in the top 15.

Foreigners set the pace in the first 21 kilometres, alternating between Kenya's Hillary Lelei, who trains with Paul Tergat, and Australia's national team member Phil Sly.

On the return leg, three Koreans bunched together leading after 30 kilometres. Only Eshetu and Australia's Kim Gillard, who finished fifth, could keep in touch.

Pan Yong Chol, chairman of the sport's guidance committee, said in a speech to the packed Kim Il Sung Stadium: "We are glad all the athletes of the world joined us to make this such a successful marathon."

Pan carefully paid tribute to Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, describing him as "the greatest leader in Korean history" before welcoming the foreign runners.

One 60-year-old North Korean man finished the race and pushed away officials trying to help him so he could bow to a giant portrait of the late leader hanging over the main tribune.

It was the first event in North Korea to get multiple international sponsorship. Italian sports equipment maker FILA, brewer Heineken, British newspaper The Financial Times, and Swiss data processing company Datactivity all backed the marathon.

FILA were the first foreign company to have adverts seen on North Korean state television when it sponsored the Pyongyang skating festival in February. It has since signed a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal for North Korean sports federations.

Kang Song Do, general secretary of the DPR Korea Athletic Association, said: "The organisers have made the international runners as welcome as we can and we are confident that the marathon will continue to grow and expand."