North Korea's weightlifters are set to take part in qualifying competitions for Paris 2024, despite not having been subjected to the same level of drugs testing as other countries ©Getty Images

North Korea is joining the qualifying programme for weightlifting at next year’s Olympic Games in Paris after an absence from the sport of nearly three and a half years.

During that time its athletes have not been subjected to the same level of anti-doping tests as others, a situation described as “unfair” by Presidents of two European national federations.

North Korea has entered a team for the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Grand Prix in Cuba from June 8 to 18, the latest possible start point for those who want to qualify for Paris 2024.

Athletes from Russia and Belarus, competing as neutrals, will also lift in Cuba after a decision taken by the IWF Executive Board yesterday.

North Korean weightlifters have not been tested out-of-competition for nearly four years and that situation is unlikely to change before the end of 2023, according to a statement by the International Testing Agency (ITA), which carries out all anti-doping procedures for the IWF.

"All nations need to follow the same rules," said Stian Grimseth, President of the the Norwegian Weightlifting Federation.

Norway’s athletes include the Olympic medal contender Solfrid Koanda in a weight category which, based on past performance, North Korea is likely to have a strong presence.

Their return will come as a surprise to most teams because nobody from North Korea has lifted in international competition since December 2019, and its National Federation had not contacted the IWF for at least two years.

"There is no news from North Korea," the IWF general secretary Antonio Urso said last October, after the Paris 2024 qualifying period had started, when he revealed plans to tighten up out-of-competition testing rules.

North Korea’s National Olympic Committee was banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) until the end of 2022 after pulling out of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games because of fears about COVID-19.

It was the only nation to withdraw.

North Korea has won more Olympic medals in weightlifting than any other sport.

They won a total of 18 medals in the sport, including five gold, with Rim Jong-sim winning the most recent one in the women's 75 kilograms at Rio 2016. 

It is not clear how many sports it intends to compete in at Paris 2024, where weightlifting is scheduled to take from August 7 to 11.

North Korea's last appearance in the Summer Olympics was at Rio 2016, where Rim Jong-sim won the country's fifth gold medal in weightlifting ©Getty Images
North Korea's last appearance in the Summer Olympics was at Rio 2016, where Rim Jong-sim won the country's fifth gold medal in weightlifting ©Getty Images

According to the ITA, testing was last carried out on North Korean weightlifters in 2019, both in-competition and out-of-competition.

That was before North Korea announced that its athletes would not compete internationally because of COVID-19 fears.

"Despite the recent relaxation of these measures by the North Korean government, it is not feasible for the ITA to conduct unannounced testing in North Korea and testing needs to be arranged whenever these athletes travel, compete or train abroad," the ITA statement said.

"This limitation is not new and has been identified by the ITA and other international sport organisations.

"The ITA has been actively consulting with WADA and relevant stakeholders on this matter."

The IWF has voted through a change to the rules and will bar nations that do not allow independent testers, but the ITA said this could not be enforced immediately because of operational and financial implications and will apply “by 2024”.

While independent testers from other countries have been unable to gain entry, North Korea’s own National Anti-Doping Organisation (NADO) has been deemed “non-compliant” by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since October 2021 because of "non-conformities in implementing an effective testing programme".

A WADA spokesperson said, "Athletes from DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) remain subject to testing, both in and out of competition.

"For details in relation to the level of testing being carried out you can contact the NADO in question."

A request for further information has been sent by insidethegames to the North Korean National Olympic Committee and its Weightlifting Federation.

North Korea spurned its first two qualifying opportunities, the IWF World Championships in Colombia last December and the Asian Championships in neighbouring South Korea which finished today.

Its National Federation is believed to have made its first contact with the IWF about three months ago, and to have made it clear that it was not keen on competing in Jinju, host city for the Asian Championships.

Effectively, the deadline for joining the Paris 2024 qualifying system was March 8, after which it was not possible to enter the Grand Prix in Cuba.

Tom Goegebuer, who coaches the Paris contender Nina Sterckx and heads the Belgian Federation, warned that the Paris 2024 qualifying system gave teams or individuals the chance to risk avoiding testing.

"From the start I voiced several times my worries about a qualification system with only one period and one peak performance," said Goegebuer.

"Suppose some lifters turn up with a huge doping-enhanced result in Cuba without any prior testing.

"There is no rule to stop them.

"Yes, they still need to participate at several more competitions and ITA will probably rank them as a risk, but do they need to use doping any more till Paris if they are ranked high enough?

"There should have been at least two periods and two peak performances counting. If PRK lifters were not regularly tested in the last year, the IWF and ITA cannot make up for that after Cuba.

"Without frequent out-of-competition testing it is not acceptable, but I don't see how they will be able to stop them."

Grimseth said, "I don’t know all the facts regarding North Korea, but if a country has not been open for ITA testing, they cannot be able to start in the Olympics or other international competitions.

"I would guess there are more countries where it is not possible to test unannounced.

"The ITA/IWF need to be transparent regarding who they are.

"All nations need to follow the same rules.

"My athletes give information and are ready for being tested everywhere and whenever.

"They do this with pleasure since that is the only way to have a clean and fair sport.

"If any nations not following these rules are able to start, all of this work is for nothing.

"It is not acceptable, even for the athletes who could unfairly be suspected of cheating."

Norwegian Weightlifting Federation President Stian Grimseth is among officials fearful over the return of North Korea without having been drugs tested properly ©Getty Images
Norwegian Weightlifting Federation President Stian Grimseth is among officials fearful over the return of North Korea without having been drugs tested properly ©Getty Images

The ITA said, "It is worth noting that conducting anti-doping activities in certain regions of the world can be especially challenging, such as in areas of armed conflict or in countries where the political and social landscape may be complex or unstable.

"In such situations, the ITA always strives to find the most effective ways to conduct testing and other anti-doping activities while ensuring the safety and security of the sample collection personnel and the integrity of the testing process.

"We continue to work closely with WADA and the relevant authorities to find solutions to these challenges and ensure that all athletes, regardless of their location, can compete on a level playing field.

"In the case of weightlifting, the ITA has taken proactive steps to address the situation by collaborating with the IWF [Executive Board and Anti-Doping Commission] to establish updated eligibility criteria for the participation of athletes in IWF competitions.

"These new eligibility criteria require a minimum level of testing, based on thorough risk assessment of each country/NF, in order for athletes to participate in the main IWF events and to address potential testing gaps at national level.

"The IWF Executive Board has supported the ITA’s and the IWF’s Anti-Doping Commission’s incisive recommendations by adopting new stringent policies to ensure that athletes taking part in IWF competitions are subject to a minimum level of testing ahead of their participation.

"Due to the financial and operational impact of this decision on all IWF national member federations, and as per the decision of the IWF Executive Board this new policy will come into effect by 2024.

"We also note that the PRK National Anti-Doping Organisation, with which the ITA does not collaborate for the implementation of testing missions, has been declared non-compliant by WADA since 2021 but continues to conduct some testing activities.

"This non-compliance status does not affect the eligibility of PRK athletes to compete in international sport competitions unless the relevant international federation decides to impose disciplinary sanctions on the athletes or their National Member Federation for the failure of their government and NADO to establish a framework that is compliant with the UNESCO Anti-Doping Convention and the World Anti-Doping Code."

There are no rules under which the IWF could impose such sanctions.

Goegebuer said, "This statement makes it clear.

"It is not a fair situation at all.

"The NADO cannot do the testing, neither can ITA."