IWF Awards 2018 Junior Worlds to North Korea. Don’t Jump to Conclusions Just Yet

On June 23rd, a few days before the kickoff of the 2016 Junior World Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) announced they had awarded the 2018 Juniors to Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For anyone not familiar with the DPRK acronym, that’s North Korea — a nation isolated like few others on the international level, and one that the United States does not maintain diplomatic ties with. As the State Department puts rather bluntly on their website:

The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations. The Swedish Embassy in North Korea is the U.S. protecting power and provides limited consular services to U.S. citizens.

It’s a nation rocked by repeated human rights violations, rigged elections, and a political system that uses violence and imprisonment as tools to crush opposition. A limited number of U.S. citizens do travel to North Korea every year — but an envoy of American athletes competing in Pyongyang is a rare occurrence, to say the least.

North Korea has had immense success in international weightlifting in recent years, including four medal winners at the 2012 London Olympics. That makes weightlifting — arguably — the DPRK’s most successful sport on the world stage.

The announcement has some in the international weightlifting community excited for the opportunity to expand weightlifting’s reach and exposure — while others, especially in the United States, have expressed trepidation. Does this mean the United States won’t send athletes — including a crop of promising Juniors — to the competition?

We’re still two years out from the competition, and while it’s easy to speculate on who will or won’t be represented in Pyongyang, U.S. participation hasn’t officially been counted out. For their part, USA Weightlifting has already released a statement reacting to the announcement, and it includes the following level-headed statement by USAW CEO Phil Andrews:

“USA Weightlifting admires the IWF’s ambition to place sport before politics. Together with our coaches, athletes, their parents and relevant authorities, we will evaluate US participation in the 2018 IWF Junior World Championships in Pyongyang.”

Basically: We’re not committing either way yet, this is a much bigger, multifaceted conversation, and we’re going to allow a number of groups to weigh in on the decision. Kudos to Andrews and the USAW leadership for choosing to make a calm statement quickly. It’s a statement without political rhetoric, and if the U.S. or other countries choose not to participate for moral or other reasons, Andrews has made it clear multiple voices will get a say.

And while the 2018 Junior World Championships will almost certainly make or break some international sporting precedents — especially as USA participation is concerned — it won’t be the first time the DPRK has hosted a high-level, multinational weightlifting competition.

In fact, Pyongyang played host to the 2013 Asian Cup, a competition where South Korea participated; the two countries share a heavily militarized border, not to mention some of the world’s most contentious relations for neighboring nations. The competition marked the first time since the Korean War that athletes from the South competed in an international sports even in the DPRK.

The event also marked the first time the South Korean national anthem was publicly played in the DPRK, and Kim Jong Un actually attended the women’s 63kg and 69kg competitions — where North and South Korean flags rose side-by-side during the medal ceremony.

North Korea’s complex history, international isolation, poor human rights track record, and cold relationship with it’s southern neighbor and the U.S. make it easy to jump to conclusions when an international weightlifting competition is announced for its capital city. But if the 2013 Asian Cup is any indication, there’s a possibility the 2018 Junior Worlds is not automatically destined to be a divisive, boycotted competition.