In the earliest days of the Olympics, winners merely received a laurel wreath and name recognition. However, those athletes knew they would be able to live off their reputation and receive free food and drink for the rest of their lives based on their success. Oh how times change. This year’s Olympic victors receive million dollar endorsement deals (or lose them: Ryan Lochte we are looking in your dumb direction) and public acclaim. Others receive jeers and embarrassment. Just ask Hiroki Ogita, the Japanese pole vaulter whose penis got in the way. Still, compared to North Korea’s Olympic athletes, even another country’s biggest loser comes out ahead.
Upon landing in Rio, Yun Yong-bok, a senior official on the hermit kingdom’s Sports Committee, announced North Korea would win at least five gold medals and twelve bronze and silver medals. The country had won four gold medals and two bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Unfortunately, saying something does not make it true. At the 2016 Olympics, North Korea’s 31 athletes won only two golds, three silvers, and two bronze medals. Meanwhile, South Korea won nine golds, three silvers, and nine bronzes. Ultimately, the look of terror on North Korean athletes who didn’t bring home the gold tells where this story is headed.
Kim Jong-un was not happy that his hated enemies to the south won more medals. Consequently, the Olympians returning to Pyongyang feared for their lives. The ruler of North Korea promised victors would receive new cars, television sets, and apartments. The TVs would even include a channel that streamed videos of the dictator 24/7. However, for those who failed to win gold, the future is full of uncertainties. In the past, Kim Jong-un has moved disappointing athletes into worse apartments, cut their rations, and stripped them of access to workout facilities.
The athletes sent to the reeducation centers and coal mines are even worse off. Looking back to 2010, the North Korean soccer team lost 7-0 to Portugal during a globally-broadcast World Cup match. As a result, many coaches and players were sent to the coal mines. For two years, they toiled in harsh conditions. Two soccer players died. Others suffered from respiratory failure. Eventually, the surviving athletes returned to their families. Time will tell if this year’s Olympic ‘failures’ follow in those coal-covered footprints.