Philip Barker

North Korea’s withdrawal from the upcoming Olympics has echoes of the 1964 Games in Tokyo although the reasons behind it are very different.

Earlier this month, Pyongyang announced that it would not take part "to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus."

The regime claims that there are no cases of COVID-19 in North Korea.

The boycott comes as international relations with the West have hardened despite attempts by the Olympic Movement to build closer relationships in recent years.

It was a similar story approaching the Tokyo Games in 1964.

Protracted negotiations had finally seen North Korea join the Olympic family. They made their debut at the Winter Games in Innsbruck but, later that year, withdrew their entire team of 180 from Tokyo after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned six members for taking part in an unsanctioned event.

In 1945, the Korean Peninsula had emerged from 35 years of Japanese occupation, but was soon plunged into another war.

The North was backed by Communist nations and the South drew support from the United Nations. The United States and other Western nations sent forces to to what proved to be a bitter struggle.

In 1951, Won Soon Lee wrote from the Korean Olympic Committee in Seoul to IOC President Sigfrid Edström.

North Korea's choreographed fans will be absent from Tokyo 2020, along with the nation's athletes ©Getty Images
North Korea's choreographed fans will be absent from Tokyo 2020, along with the nation's athletes ©Getty Images

"Our country has been in the midst of turmoil since last summer. Our Athletic ground is completely damaged and we have lost the chance to have regular Games."

Millions died before an armistice was signed in 1953. The boundary on the line of the 38th parallel left two ideologically opposed regimes, to this day still technically at war.

The South Koreans had a National Olympic Committee which was recognised by the IOC.

"Various matches and contests have been held behind the front, reflecting the ardent desire to restore sports to their former position" they said.

North Korea remained outside the Olympic fold.

It was a problem which seemed familiar to Lausanne. The IOC had already been confronted by the two Chinas, and East and West Germany. It had encouraged both Germanies to enter a symbolic unified team for the first time in 1956.

Then North Korea also asked for Olympic recognition.

Chancellor Otto Mayer had responded by "calling attention to the arrangements made in Germany and suggesting that similar arrangements be made in Korea."

Romanian member Alexander Siperco countered that "in his opinion it would be impossible to make such an arrangement."

As the 1950s came to a close, Pyongyang’s case was taken up by the Bulgarian member General Stoichkov and the Soviets Aleksey Romanov and Konstantin Adrianov.

In 1960 Stoichkov asked "that a decision be taken concerning the Korean situation, in order to give the athletes of North Korea the possibility to compete in the Games."

President Avery Brundage insisted that "the IOC has done everything in its power in order that a North-South team might participate," but lamented the impossibility of bringing the two together.

By 1962, when the IOC met in Moscow, it announced that "the Olympic Committee of North Korea is to be placed provisionally on the official list."

There were still hopes of a unified Korean team for Tokyo.

Representatives of both sides met twice in the early months of 1963. IOC Executive Board records noted "an almost full accord was reached between the two parties who agreed to send a combined Korean team to compete in Tokyo."

By now the North Koreans had a star in the making.

In 1962, Sin Kim-dan recorded a world record of 51.9 seconds for the 400 metres.

The late Italian athletics historian Robert Quecertani described her as "a great but somewhat mysterious performer".

The South Koreans, then under an authoritarian regime, had by now boycotted the World Speed Skating Championships in the Japanese city of Karuizawa, accusing North Korea of "using the championships for political purposes."

When the IOC met in October 1963, Brundage had reluctantly concluded: "A United team would encounter too many difficulties."

The North Koreans were however to be "definitely recognised."

A few months later, a team of 13 arrived in Innsbruck for the Winter Olympics. Officials lodged an objection to using the name "North Korea" but the team remained to compete in cross-country skiing and speed skating. The country won one medal - silver in the women's 3,000m speed skating thanks to Han Pil-hwa.

Pyongyang planned to send a much bigger team to Tokyo.

Yet a political shadow was about to fall on the whole enterprise.

The 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta had been enthusiastically hosted by Indonesian President Sukarno but became politically charged when his Government refused entry visas to competitors from Israel or Taiwan.

Indian IOC member Guru Dutt Sondhi was furious and Brundage sent a cable "deploring the tactics". Some International Federations withdrew their recognition and the IOC subsequently suspended the Indonesian National Olympic Committee.

A unified Korean delegation walked at the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
A unified Korean delegation walked at the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Now it was Sukarno who was angry. He announced that Indonesia would host the first "Games of New Emerging Forces" (GANEFO).

These were to be "based on the spirit of Afro Asian ideals and were aimed at the promotion and development of sports, physical culture and of sports movements in all countries of the new emerging forces."

Organisers claimed that they would to "promote friendship and world peace in general."

Once again Taiwan and Israel were frozen out. There were warnings of sanctions including a ban from the Olympics for those who took part. Athletics and swimming both refused to recognise the event.

Brundage later branded GANEFO as "politically inspired".

Participants were he claimed "were mainly students or members of political organisations which had no contact with National Olympic Committees and International Federations".

Sin did compete in Jakarta and proved a star performer. In the 400m she recorded 51.4. In the 800m her 1min 59.01sec was also a world best, but neither was ever officially ratified as a world record.

Soon, the threatened ban from the Olympics was a reality.

Brundage had the support of the Marquess of Exeter, then head of what is now World Athletics.

"If we had not been willing to fight for our federation’s authority, it would have been the start of the gradual disintegration of amateur sport as we know it throughout the world," Exeter said.

Julian Grero, secretary of Ceylon's Olympic Committee - now Sri Lanka - complained of "arbitrary actions" and accused Brundage of being "unfair".

Soviet athletics official Leonid Khomenkov called for the lifting of the ban and was supported by Tunisia, the United Arab Republic and even the delegate from Japan.

Brundage reported that "the North Koreans had lodged a request for six athletes who had been suspended for taking part in GANEFO to be allowed to take part in the Olympics."

North Korean officials threatened to withdraw their entire contingent of 180 unless the ban was rescinded.

The two Koreas were housed close to one another in the Olympic Village at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Philip Barker
The two Koreas were housed close to one another in the Olympic Village at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Philip Barker

"You are complaining because we keep six people out of the Games and you are keeping 174 out. Who is right?" Brundage asked.

The Koreans gave their answer.

Sin, considered by many a hot favourite for gold, arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport only to be turned back. She never did take part in an Olympics.

In Tokyo, Betty Cuthbert’s winning time for 400m was 52.0 and Ann Packer won the 800m in 2:01.1, both slower than Dan’s best performances.

Further disputes in 1968 delayed the appearance of North Korea at the Summer Games until 1972.

This month’s decision not to go to Tokyo was announced via an official North Korean Government website. There was apparently no official communique to Lausanne.

It seems certain to upset Olympic relations. IOC President Thomas Bach had worked hard to ensure North Korean participation and symbolic displays of Korean unity at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and later enjoyed what the IOC described as "fruitful talks" when he visited North Korea.

North Korea's decision to stay away from Tokyo 2020 is in direct contrast to Bach’s own position. He has consistently insisted that the Olympics can go ahead safely in Japan.

The South Koreans had hoped to use the Games as an opportunity for further discussion with the North.

At the beginning of this month, they had launched a formal bid for Seoul to co-host the Games with Pyongyang in 2032.