The world has lost not only a despotic leader who hovered his finger over the launch button for a giant nuclear arsenal. It has, apparently, lost one of the greatest athletes of all time.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il died at the age of 69 on Saturday, bringing to an end a long reign that took his nation into increasing isolation from all but a few Communist-leaning allies, established a remarkable cult of personality that saw him deified by his citizens, and, if the Party propaganda machine is to be believed, compiled an extraordinary record of athletic achievements.
This writer and countless other sports correspondents around the world can only lament the fact that the long-standing enmity between the West and North Korea meant we could not be in attendance on that magical day in 1994 when Kim marched onto the golf course for the very first time.
Despite the minor obstacle of, you know, zero coaching or course experience, Kim used his divine powers -- he was, after all, officially known as both the Glorious General Who Descended From Heaven and the Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Commander -- to piece together an exquisite round of 38 for 18 holes at Pyongyang’s 7,700-yard championship course.
The feat included five magnificent holes-in-one and it appears that Kim subsequently decided his 31-under-par achievement was enough to solidify his legacy and rarely played afterwards. Perhaps for the sake of our perception of golf’s legend, it is just as well. Jack Nicklaus’ career hole-in-one tally of 20 seems humble by comparison, and had Kim continued at his early pace, he would have surpassed the Golden Bear within a week.
Ten-pin bowling was another pursuit that Kim, believed to stand just over five feet but clearly a physical specimen of unmatched grace, turned to with equal aplomb. Again, it took just one attempt to solidify his reputation as a world class performer, with a perfect 300 game in the mid-1990s.
Fans of Kim must have been disappointed that, in his later years, the sporting prowess slowed down and tales of his exploits were few and far between. However, it must be remembered that as he was by then a severely ill and largely bed-ridden man in his mid-60s. A continuation of his glorious efforts would have been simply unrealistic.
By then his appetite for sports was largely restricted to coaching and his ailing physical condition could not prevent that razor-sharp mind from being put to good use in the service of his nation. During the soccer World Cup in 2010, Kim, by then so rarely seen in public that false reports of his death -- presumably leaked by those rascals in the West -- combined technology with tactical savvy to deliver messages to North Korea head coach Kim Jong-Hun.
The advice was sent via invisible telephone, which the Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love (another delightful official moniker) had himself had invented, with the coach telling ESPN: "I get regular information ... using mobile phones not visible to the naked eye."
North Korea’s misfortune (or a dastardly Western plot) at being placed in the infamous Group of Death alongside Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast meant there was little that could be done to prevent them from conceding 12 lucky goals and losing all three games, much to the disappointment of the thousand-plus Chinese fans who were rented to cheer them on in South Africa.
Undeterred, Kim again used his soccer knowledge to the benefit of North Korea during the Women’s World Cup earlier this year. More sound hints were sent to the coaching staff, only for the side to be eliminated from group play after struggling to recover from being struck by lightning, which may have also resulted in five players testing positive for steroids.
Even in the months before his death, Kim was said to have retained a keen interest in watching sports. A huge basketball fan -- he was presented with a signed Michael Jordan ball by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright more than a decade ago -- he must have been disappointed by the recent NBA lockout.
The Jordan memento was said to occupy pride of place in one of Kim’s 17 luxurious palaces and was a fitting tribute from one sports legend to another.
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