Make Room in the Gulag: North Korea at the Rio Games



It is rumored that after the North Korean men’s soccer team was humiliated 7-0 by Portugal live on national television at the 2010 World Cup that some coaches and players were sent to detention facilities or re-assigned to work in the mines. If that story is true, then they’d better start preparing for some new arrivals.

With the giant caveat that we shouldn’t believe everything in the newspaper, consider this recent article which appeared in the Korea Times titled “N. Korea leader orders athletes to win five golds at Rio Games.” According to the piece, itself a synopsis of a Tokyo Shimbum story, Kim Jong-un asked Choe Ryong-hae, Vice Chairman of the ruling Workers' Party and Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, who has accompanied the delegation to Rio, to estimate how many medals the country could win at the Olympics. Choe reportedly replied three gold medals, six silver and six bronze—a total of 15 medals. In response, the Dear Respected Comrade denounced this benchmark “and demanded the team bring back at least five gold medals.”

"Ultimately it is about a political system that can turn on the whims of a deified supreme leader."

Now, for a bit of context. The most medals that North Korea has won at an Olympic Games is 9 (4 gold) at Barcelona in 1992. Since then, total medals have been in the 4-6 range, with 4 golds in the 2012 London Games the high water mark. As avid readers of this blog may recall, I have written several papers on participation and performance in the Olympic Games. Performance in the previous Olympics is highly correlated with performance in the current Olympics. The coefficient on the “lagged dependent variable” is typically in the range of 0.7-0.9 which means that about 80 percent of a country’s medal haul is explained by what it did in the previous Olympics. So, for example, since North Korea won 6 medals in London, we can effectively start with a baseline of 0.8x6=4.8 medals before examining the other factors that might cause this estimate to rise or fall. For comparison sake I should note that I predict between 26-30 medals for the South Koreans. My latest forecasts for Rio are here.

To get a sense of how improbable Kim Jong-un’s target is, missing data precluded including North Korea in the statistical models directly, but with a little work, Kevin Stahler and I managed to construct an estimate that put the DPRK into the 5-6 medals range. To effectively double that estimate, North Korea would either have to have exhibited tremendous growth in the independent correlates such as GDP per capita or educational attainment over the past year, or exhibit mind-boggling outperformance. It’s virtually impossible to imagine this happening in the absence of a systematic doping program. The North Koreans have imported East German coaches and like former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis have a well-known fondness for musk deer gland extract, but it’s going to take all the PEDs they can lay their hands on to get to 17 medals total, 5 of them gold.

It’s easy to regard Kim’s medal goal as the uninformed bravado of a young autocrat. But sadly the story, again if true, also says something about North Korea. Goals are established, not through careful analysis, but according to arbitrary dictates, with few mechanisms for accountability and correction when things begin to go awry. One recalls examples such as Kim Il-sung’s disastrous attempt to put a chicken in every pot, or the failure of early attempts to reform agriculture when material incentives were conditioned on unattainable production goals. Ultimately it is about a political system that can turn on the whims of a deified supreme leader. Better clear some space in the gulag. Some coaches and athletes may be arriving in a few weeks.

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