The weird opening ceremony hasn’t even come off, and the North Korean Olympic bid is already falling into the typical storyline of controversy and intrigue. On Wednesday, Olympics organizers proved themselves incapable of Googling when they introduced the North Korean women’s soccer team using the South Korean flag at their opening match against Colombia. The team stormed off, and only a hasty apology from the highest echelons of the Olympic organization could coax them back onto the field an hour later.
The flag controversy completely overshadowed the fact that North Korea went on to trounce their Colombian opponents, 2-0. The North Korean women’s team is good. Surprisingly good. The young and inexperienced team that hails from a country whose citizens are being increasingly starved by their leaders is second only to Japan in Asia. “Fantastic,” is how U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly described them. Nobody would ever mistake North Korea’s men’s team for “fantastic.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of North Korea’s Olympic bid is that women are by far the dominant force in North Korean international athletics, and their preeminence is in typically male sports. In the 2008 Beijing games, all but one of North Korea’s five medals were won by women, including both golds. In London, North Korea’s female weightlifters, judo fighters and soccer team are among the strongest of their 51-member olympic squad .
North Korea women’s prowess in these sports is all the more remarkable given that North Korean society is so patriarchal that in 1996 North Korean officials banned bicycling in Pyongyang for women because it wasn’t seen as sufficiently female. Back in the 80s, the government saw female participation in traditionally male sports as a sign of capitalism’s ultimate corruption. “The rotten and diseased world of capitalism does not spare women from kicking a ball,” wrote an official publication in the early 1980s.
But today, the best North Korean soccer coaches actually prefer coaching the women’s teams over the men, according to South Korean journalist Joo Seong-Ha. This imbalance has prompted some experts to draw conclusions about the North. Joo Seong-Ha offered the rather questionable analysis for why the women’s soccer team so outperforms their male counterparts: “North Korean women’s innate toughness must have played a factor. As the proverb goes, ‘Southern men, northern women.’” (South Korean men are thought to be strong and handsome, while North Korean women are strong and beautiful.)
But the North Korean women’s preemincence says more about the structure of international athletics than the character of North Korean women. The men’s competition is more intense, which means North Korean women aren’t as handicapped by the country’s isolation and poverty. They “get access to just as many facilities and coaches domestically [as men], and the worldwide game for women isn’t as high in quality relative to the men’s,” said Gerard Clare, who’s been covering North Korean soccer for NKnews.com.
— Why The Women of North Korea Are The Most Interesting Olympians
What this article is basically saying is that North Korea gives their male and female athletes the exact same facilities, whereas many other countries give their men and women’s teams different or unequal ones. The women’s team didn’t have to worry about finding sponsors because they were a “girl who’s built like a guy” (Sarah Robles). The NK team is there to play hard.