— Published 6 April 2021

North Korea will not see the Tokyo Games

The Olympic movement will not present itself in full on Friday, July 23rd, at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games. One country will be missed at the delegations parade. With less than 110 days to go, North Korea announced Tuesday, April 6th, its decision not to participate in the upcoming Summer Games.

For the first time in history, the withdrawal of a member country from the Olympic movement is not motivated by political or diplomatic reasons. It is justified on health grounds.

The North Korean Sports Ministry announced on its official website that the country had “decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympics in order to protect athletes from the global health crisis caused by COVID-19“.

The decision was reportedly taken on March 25th at a meeting of the North Korean Olympic Committee. The official North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported on its conduct and content. It said that North Korean officials had discussed several topics, including the need to invest in high technology, ways to win medals in international competitions, and finally the establishment of a five-year strategic plan. years to promote physical activity to the general public. Curiously, however, they had not mentioned the historic decision to give up on the Tokyo Games.

Has North Korea opened a breach by removing the Tokyo Games from its calendar to “protect the health” of its athletes? The future will answer. But one thing is certain: their absence from the Olympic event has serious consequences.

The first is political. Three years after the two Koreas joined in the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, the Tokyo Games could have helped lift North Korea out of diplomatic isolation.

South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has made no secret of his willingness to use the Tokyo Games to resume dialogue. “The Tokyo Olympics being held this year could be an opportunity for dialogues between South Korea and Japan, North and South, North Korea and Japan, and North Korea and the United States”, he suggested on March 1st in his speech for South Korea’s National Independence Day.

The other consequence is more directly Olympic. At the end of last week, the Seoul authorities announced that they wanted to maintain their candidacy for the Summer Games in 2032, despite the ultra favourite position in the Australian dossier carried by Brisbane and Queensland. An application that would be common with North Korea, articulated around the two capitals, Seoul and Pyongyang.

On paper, the Korean project seemed fragile, and undoubtedly not big enough to reverse a process that could designate Australia as early as the next IOC session, scheduled for the Tokyo Games. With the announcement of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Tokyo Games, its chances are now almost nil.

Sportingly, the absence of North Korea should not change the course of history. But it is not anecdotal either. At the last Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the North Korean delegation numbered 31 athletes, engaged in nine sports. They had won seven medals, including two gold (artistic gymnastics and weightlifting). North Korea took 34th place in the medal standings.