North Korea hopes for sporting change in wake of summit

AFP , Sunday 17 Jun 2018

North Korean sports administrators are hoping the country will come in from the sporting cold in the wake of leader Kim Jong Un's summit with Donald Trump in Singapore.

Isolated and subject to UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, North Korea does not often host international sporting events.

An AFC Women's Asian Cup qualifying group last year –- when North played South –- was the highest-profile event it had held for years.

But as tensions mounted it lost the right to hold the junior world championships for judo and weightlifting, both of which it had been awarded.

Even so it has held on to an annual International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Challenge-level event, the Pyongyang Open, currently underway.

In the wake of the Singapore summit, when Kim and Trump shook hands in front of the cameras, tournament director Kim Chong Il said he hoped his country would now be able to host more international sporting occasions.

The North was capable of hosting, he said, adding that previously "the limitations were not set by our side".

Table tennis has had a diplomatic role in the past -– matches between China and the US helped break the ice ahead of Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in 1972 which led years later to Washington's recognition of the People's Republic.

And at the world championships in Sweden last month North and South Korea unified their teams rather than play against each other in the quarter-finals.

"For us it's very important that table tennis is for all and that we can play table tennis all over the world," ITTF finance vice president Petra Soerling told AFP in Pyongyang.

"For us this is very important. If instead of closing the door we can open the door we would love to be part of that."

- Andy Murray -

A total of 23 foreign players took part in the Pyongyang Open, mostly from China and Vietnam, but also including Scotland number one Gavin Rumgay.

At the age of 16 Rumgay was also Scotland's number one tennis player, and beat future Wimbledon champion Andy Murray five times before deciding to concentrate on the smaller game.

The 33-year-old from Perth is now ranked 150 in the world and was the number one seed, but lost to a local player in his very first match.

As North Koreans do not play in overseas tournaments, he explained, they do not accumulate ranking points but their lowly figures belie their skills.

"I play obviously a lot more tournaments than they do, I have got a much better world ranking than them but level-wise the top four or five will be better than me," he said.

Rumgay runs a racket sports business to support himself and said he can only train around 10 hours a week.

"These guys are training two three-hour sessions a day, 30 hours a week, which is exactly what you need to play at the level these guys are playing."

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