On Sunday, North Korea opened up the annual Pyongyang marathon to foreign amateurs for the first time. It was an unusual move for the secretive and deliberately isolated state, with much of the country still firmly off-limits to visitors.
The Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon – to use its official title – is classed as a bronze-label event, and is now in its 27th year. The decision to make it more open is said to be to do with making it a greater race, as part of the celebrations surrounding the birth of the nation’s founder Kim II Sung on April 15.
The North has been making efforts to boost tourism revenues, and tourism agencies reported that many of the large number of applications received were from tourists more interested in seeing Pyongyang close up, rather than competing in the marathon.
Although the marathon has long been open to elite athletes from around the world, this is the first time amateurs have been invited, with the only requirement being the ability to finish the race within four hours so that roads could be re-opened.
If this all sounds a little bit more open than expected for a country with the reputation of North Korea, the Associated Press reports that there were caveats: athletes were instructed not to carry US or Japanese flags, and prevented from wearing any clothes with large writing, or that was felt to be political and/or attention grabbing. Cameras were also forbidden. Runners were said to be followed by a truck ‘blaring patriotic music on loudspeakers’.
The largely flat course consists of four loops around the centre of Pyongyang from the Kim II-sung stadium, past the Arch of Triumph, Friendship Tower and the Kim II-sung University. The 42,000 supporters in the stadium had football matches and martial arts exhibitions before the runners returned.
The race was won by North Korea’s Pak Chol in two hours, 12 minutes and 26 seconds. In the women’s race, two twin sisters – Kim Hye Gyong and Kim Hye Song – finished first and second, with the winning time of two hours, 27 minutes and four seconds.