By Brian Oliver

Brian OliverWhen the sport finished it was party time in Almaty, host city for the 2014 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships that concluded on November 16. The grand ballroom at the Royal Tulip hotel was the venue for the end-of-event banquet, a lavish affair that featured singing, dancing, traditional music, awards presentations and a feast of Kazakh food.

The expensive wine flowed freely, nowhere more than on the Chinese delegation's tables. Athletes, coaches and officials, most of them dressed in the team's vivid western-style leisurewear, repeatedly toasted each other and were clearly there to enjoy themselves.

When the compere asked for six male volunteers from the audience to enter a dancing competition, China sent forward one of their team. He had all the moves and did himself and his country proud.

Ten days earlier, in the same ballroom, an invited audience of Olympic champions, coaches, officials and dignitaries had watched the first screening of a new film that also showed Chinese weightlifters enjoying themselves. Lift the World, a 50-minute documentary filmed on four continents, featured footage of China's multiple champion and world record holder Lü Xiaojun dancing with his friends and pouring shots in a nightclub.

The audience in Almaty watched the first screening of the Lift the World documentary ©YouTubeThe audience in Almaty watched the first screening of the Lift the World documentary ©YouTube

Scenes such as these would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The Chinese, who have dominated weightlifting throughout the early part of this century, were seen as stern, serious and anything but fun-loving. That has all changed. Sport has played a leading role in hastening the "opening up" of a country that, less than 40 years ago, seemingly wanted nothing to do with the rest of the world.

There is still one country that, surely, will never change. Or will it?

North Korea in 2014 is even more isolationist than China was 40 or 50 years ago. In the past few weeks, though, there have been signs of change. North Korea, remarkably, appears to be "opening up" - at least in the world of weightlifting.

There is still a long, long way to go, as the North Koreans showed by not even turning up at the Almaty banquet, despite having two awards to pick up. They did not always turn up to the post-competition IWF press conferences, either. But when they did, they couldn't stop talking. It was a sight to behold.

At London 2012, where North Korea surprised their rivals by winning three gold medals, the winners' comments to the media were predictable and laughable. The Dear Leader, the late Kim Jong-il, had been there with them at every training session and every contest on the path to the Olympic podium.

Om Yun-Chol, who lifted more than three times his own bodyweight on the way to victory in the men's 56 kilograms competition, said, "The reason I am able to get the gold medal at these Olympics is due to the warm love and consideration of General Kim Jong-il and Comrade Kim Jong-un [North Korea's current leader]. Because of them, I was able to get great strength today." The other medallists said more or less the same thing.

Om Yun-Chol said he was able to win gold at London 2012 because of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un ©Getty ImagesOm Yun-Chol said he was able to win gold at London 2012 because of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un ©Getty Images

In Almaty Om won again, only six weeks after another world-record-breaking performance at the Asian Games in Incheon, over the border in South Korea. This time there was no mention of the Dear Leader, as Kim Jong-il was known.

Om was sitting alongside the men he beat, Thạch Kim Tuấn from Vietnam and his latest rival from China, Long Qingquan. Here's what he told journalists.

"I was so stressed for that gold medal in the Asian Games. Our country and South Korea are divided, and hostile. Our Leader [Kim Jong-un] told us before we left that we were going into battle, and we had to win. I did win, and I was very proud.

"I was so afraid of losing in these World Championships because I put so much effort into winning only a few weeks ago. It was very hard, and I am very happy.

"In the 2012 Olympics I beat Mr Wu [Jingbiao] from China. In 2013 I beat Mr Long from China, who is sitting here beside me, and today I beat him again. China is such a big country, it has so many weightlifters, so many opportunities to win, and we are a much smaller country - but I have beaten them and I will beat them again. I will protect my gold medals."

Om smiled throughout, and he even answered a question about his favourite food.

"I like only the Korean national dishes," he said, "especially kimchi [fermented vegetables]."

The next day another Olympic champion from North Korea won again and said his favourite food was cold noodles, though he too only liked Korean national dishes, of course. Later in the Championships, as North Korea piled up the medals, they spoke again of their favourite food and hobbies: a beaten Russian woman was a Facebook freak, the victorious North Korean preferred reading books.

They said they were looking forward to competing in the 2015 World Championships when they can show off their superhuman strength to another superpower. Those Championships will be hosted by Houston, Texas, next November.

The North Koreans gloated every time they beat the Chinese and, reverting to form, they did not turn up when the Chinese beat them. The 20-year-old Ryo Un-hui, a first-time winner in the women's 69kg category, said, "There was a time when China was the strongest in weightlifting, but not any more. That's in the past."

By the end of the Championships North Korea's team of six men and six women had won 12 gold medals. That was twice as many as they had amassed in all their previous appearances over five decades. For the first time, in any major Championships in any sport, North Korea finished top of the medals table. They had also set the North Korean record, by a long way, for talking (fairly) openly to the media, and smiling.

Ryo Un-hui said China is no long the strongest nation in weightlifting ©Getty ImagesRyo Un-hui said China is no long the strongest nation in weightlifting ©Getty Images

They even offered up information about their sport that was news to the rest of the world. They have 900 registered lifters - compared to 10,000 in China. Their coaches were all North Koreans. And Kim Jong-un was a weightlifting fan. "He likes many sports, but especially weightlifting," said the team's interpreter.

Why the change? The answer came once they had confirmed their place at the top of the medals table. They want to use weightlifting to invite the world - even South Korea and the United States - to North Korea. They want to host a World Championships in Pyongyang.

Although they have not made an official bid to host an event the North Koreans have expressed their interest to the IWF. Talks are ongoing and, despite the enormous challenges - accommodation, food, visas, media - that would be faced by the hosts and the governing body, it is much more than a possibility.

Attila Adamfi, director general of the IWF, said it could happen within five years. "We want it to happen," Adamfi told insidethegames. "It would be great for our sport, and great for all sport.

"Weightlifting is already their most successful sport. They have the infrastructure, they have a great venue that seats 10,000-12,000, they have the sport-specific know-how, and they are keen to do it.

"We are having discussions, and their latest success in Almaty must have given new impetus to their ambitions to host a major IWF event.

"A senior World Championships is not realistic, in my view, because I can't see how they could meet the requirements for HD television, for marketing and so on. It would more likely be an IWF Youth or Junior World Championships. Talks are ongoing."

Attila Adamfi said a major weightlifting Championships in North Korea could happen within five years ©IWFAttila Adamfi said a major weightlifting Championships in North Korea could happen within five years ©IWF

The reaction to the news was positive. China's Li Hao, a manager with the team in Almaty, said, "It would be great if DPRK [North Korea] hosted a Championships. They are our strongest rivals now, and our athletes would love to go there. A competition in DPRK would motivate our athletes to do better."

Ashley Metcalfe, the former Yorkshire cricketer who heads British Weightlifting, was very enthusiastic. "It should be applauded," said Metcalfe, who would be keen to send a Great Britain team to Pyongyang. "It would be another exciting first for weightlifting. It's a good example of how sport can break down barriers that politicians sometimes can't."

The only other time North Korea has staged a World Championships in any sport was in 1979. The sport was table tennis but the event was not truly global, because South Korea and Israel were not invited.

The United States sent a team, and would probably do so this time, should it happen. "If the North Korean Federation were to host a World Championships, our Federation would seriously consider sending a team," said Michael Massik, head of USA Weightlifting. "Our considerations would be tempered by the opinion of our Olympic Committee, the recommendation of our State Department, and the availability of appropriate visas."

North Korea would invite 700-1,000 people - athletes, coaches, officials, media - from all the nations who compete at global championships.

Any such move would have to have support from the very top, from Kim Jong-un. No problem. Kim Jong-un first watched weightlifting in September last year at the historic Asian Cup Interclub Championship in Pyongyang. It was historic because, for the first time, a South Korean sports team competed north of the border: they could march under their flag and play their anthem.

"The Leader said our weightlifting was very strong, and he enjoyed it," said the team interpreter in Almaty.

Adamfi attended that Interclub competition in Pyongyang's 10,000-seat indoor arena with one of the IWF's anti-doping experts, Magdolna Trombitás. Other nations have their suspicions on that front, but out-of-competition testing has taken place in North Korea for the last two years, and only one of their athletes is currently suspended compared to 18 from Azerbaijan and 13 from Kazakhstan.

The North Koreans had asked the IWF to help them organise the Asian Cup event, attended by 10 nations, because they had never done anything like it before. The IWF agreed to help, on certain conditions imposed by the IWF's long-standing President, Tamás Aján, from Hungary. The one that really mattered was that South Korea should be invited. It was weightlifting itself that was responsible for the South's presence across the great divide.

"The [North] Koreans agreed to all the conditions and when the South Korean anthem was played they were officially giving recognition to the nation of South Korea, even though the two countries are technically at war and do not officially recognise each other," said Adamfi. "This was a great achievement. The sport of weightlifting made history.

"That Asian Cup opened the door and the [North] Koreans would now like to host a World Championships. It would be very special to have a Championships there but of course there are many challenges to overcome. Do they have enough hotel space for 500 athletes and their coaches, and for the IWF officials? Can they provide food of a high enough standard? What about visas, and media? It would be great for sport, but it would be a huge challenge. I'm positive. It could happen, definitely."

Two months after that ground-breaking Pyongyang tournament the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, made a strange announcement about "depraved" attitudes to sport in the west. It coincided with the 2013 Weightlifting World Championships, in which the Korean team finished third with three gold medals. It was a year ago this month and, looking back, it may well have been when the North Koreans decided they could show the world a different way of doing things.

KCNA said weightlifting had been damaged by the western nations who put commercial interests ahead of national honour. Sport in America and the West "is abused as a means for money-making...a tragedy produced by the depraved capitalist system in which money decides everything."

The North Korean agency was reacting to innocuous comments made by a coach at the World Championships in Poland, who said it was impossible to make money as a weightlifting coach in the United States.

That may have been true until recently but not now: many coaches are selling their highly valued expertise to affluent young people who have joined the popular competitive fitness boom, led by US company CrossFit. In 2001 CrossFit had one gym, or "box" as they prefer to call it. Now there are 10,000 worldwide, from Brazil to South Africa, to Australia to China, and this has helped to make weightlifting the world's fastest-growing Olympic sport. In the last year the number of registered weightlifters in Australia and the US has doubled, as has the output of steel lifting bars by the Swedish equipment manufacturer Eleiko.

CrossFit has not yet cracked the North Korean market, though, and the North Koreans are unlikely to be aware of it. Besides, it is just what they detest: highly commercial.

North Korea has the world's largest stadium, the 150,000-capacity Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, but no teams worthy of attracting a full house ©WikipediaNorth Korea has the world's largest stadium, the 150,000-capacity Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, but no teams worthy of attracting a full house ©Wikipedia

At around the same time as the KCNA statement Kim Jung-un spoke of "a hot wind of sports blowing through Korea". His nation has the world's largest stadium, the 150,000-capacity Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, but no teams worthy of attracting a full house. The high point of North Korean football was in 1966, when they defeated Italy 1-0 in the World Cup in England. They qualified for the World Cup again in 2010 but lost every game, and their women's team tarnished their reputation when five of their players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2011.

The golden era of North Korean sport is right now. At the Asian Games, which feature 28 sports, North Korea finished third in the medals table, their best result since 1990. On their turn the athletes were cheered by hundreds of thousands of flag-waving people on a six-mile parade from the airport to the centre of Pyongyang.

Weightlifting is their new number one sport, by a long way.

Lyn Jones, co-author of the IWF's coaching manual, told insidethegames, "What the North Koreans have done in a few years is quite remarkable. They have always had one or two good lifters over the years but never a whole team like this."

Jones, a coach with the Australian team who has been involved in the sport for 60 years, added, "North Korea is not a rich country, and weightlifting is a fairly cheap sport to put on; you get a lot for your money. You don't need a lot of space and once you have bought the equipment you're off and running.

"The thing is nobody really knows how they have achieved it. Virtually nobody goes there, and they haven't used foreign coaches. Even China did that years ago."

There has been an exchange programme between China and North Korea in several Olympic sports for about 10 years. In weightlifting, North Korea sends some of its best youth lifters on visits to China, and China sent a team to train in North Korea for 10 days. But North Korea has never asked for help with coaching. "They have always used their own people," said Li Hao.

North Korean sports policy is based on a speech made nearly 30 years ago by Kim Jong-il, in which he said sport should be used as a public relations tool to generate international recognition and improve the nation's reputation beyond their borders.

International sport can open doors, and open minds, as China has shown. If Pyongyang does host a World Championships, who knows if we might see North Koreans on the dance floor in future?

Brian Oliver, author of "The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals", and a former sports editor of The Observer, was weightlifting media manager at London 2012 and Glasgow 2014.