By Brian Oliver
(Reuters) – Weightlifting’s new hardline approach to doping has not only led to one-year bans for China, Russia and seven other nations, it has also opened the way for North Korea to register its biggestsporting triumph in U.S. President Donald Trump’s backyard.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have escalated in recent months, with Trump vowing to halt the country’s nuclear ambitions, but the North Korean lifters will be welcomed.
Despite Trump’s travel ban against several nations, including North Korea and Iran, the World Championships organizing committee do not foresee any visa problems.
“We look forward to welcoming DPR Korea, one of the top teams in the sport, to Anaheim, (California)” said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting.
North Korea have never topped the medals table at a world championship in any major sport but excel at weightlifting.
In recent years it has become the most successful sport for North Korea, who came second in the weightlifting medal count at the London 2012 Olympics and fourth in Rio last year. They have also made the top four at the past three worlds.
North Korea are huge favorites to win most medals at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships being staged by the U.S. from Nov. 27 to Dec. 5.
There are 16 weight categories, eight each for men and women, in Anaheim and in seven of them a North Korean tops the revised world rankings, after banned countries are discounted. No other nation has more than one lifter in first place.
China, which has been top of the World Championship or Olympic medals count 19 times in the past 20 years, will have to stay at home this time along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey.
Those nine nations had three or more of the 49 weightlifting positive tests announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games were re-tested, bringing a one-year ban from mid-October.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave weightlifters pride of place when his nation’s 11 gold medallists from the 2014 Asian Games – staged in South Korea – had a victory parade on their return to Pyongyang.
Four of the 11 were weightlifters and Kim was photographed with one on each arm, the 56kg world record holder and multiple champion Om Yun-chol, and 62kg winner Kim Un-Guk, both of whom are national heroes.
Kim is thanked by the winners every time they speak to the world’s media.
When Om won gold at London 2012 he said his medal was “due to the warm love and consideration” of his supreme leader, while Rim Jong-Sim, after her 75kg gold medal in Rio last year, said: “The first thing I thought when I knew I had won was that I had made our beloved leader happy.”
Om and Rim will be two of the strongest favorites to win on American soil, while Kim will be missing, having been banned for four years when he tested positive along with three other North Koreans at the 2015 World Championships.
Despite those positives, North Korea have a comparatively good record on doping, with eight lifters banned in the past 10 years compared to 29 in the same period from Kazakhstan, the worst offenders.
(Reporting by Brian Oliver; Editing by Ken Ferris)