Much more than ping-pong

Al Jazeera's Olympic Correspondent Lee Wellings experiences first-hand the rivalry between North and South Korea.

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    When there are 25 golds to be won on the busiest, craziest day of the Olympics so far it might seem a little strange to head to a men's first round table tennis match with no medals at stake.

    But this is no ordinary match and the stakes are perhaps higher than gold, silver and bronze for the competitors.

    This is North Korea v South Korea.

    When they clash in sport it's more than sport. When they clash it's news.

    To add to the tension, representatives of these two nations - technically still at war - are thrown into a knockout format. No hiding pace for the losers.

    Tensions have been bubbling throughout the week - North Korean officials complained when South Korean photographers apparently tried to take pictures at a practice session.

    There had been a more prominent diplomatic incident at the start of the games when North Korea's women's football team walked off the field after a blunder before the game and didn't re-emerge for nearly an hour. Their pictures had been shown next to a SOUTH Korean flag. Olympic Organisers could barely have made a more sensitive mistake.

    But both nations have enjoyed more success than expected. South Korea ended first week of action third in medals table above the host nation Great Britain. North Korea, to the surprise of some, are in the top ten too with four golds.

    Remarkably the teams unified to compete in the 1991 table tennis World Championships in Japan. The women's team finished as champions. Mistrust and tension in the camp apparently started to evaporate but politics dictated this was a short lived 'utopia'.

    When the two teams emerge the atmosphere is cold and tense. They play in the centre of four tables in the Excel Arena in London's Docklands. Locked in concentration.

    It's North Korea who make the best start when Kim Hyok Bong wins in straight games. The second match is much livelier. The crowd manage to get involved and South Korea level it through Joo Saehwuk's victory.

    Cursory handshakes. South Korea's coaching entourage have been more animated than the opposition, fitting in with an earlier accounts I'd read of North Korean officials and athletes in the Olympic village not engaging, eyes fixed ahead. In a zone.

    There's a lot more noise and activity around the table as the doubles starts - and it's close. After four tight high quality games South Korea win. They need to win just one of the closing two singles matches.

    The other three matches have finished and the table is empty. The spotlight is on the Korean clash in more ways the one.

    Kim Hyok Bung is some player but he needs to beat the excellent Ryu Seungman of South Korea to keep the match alive.

    Failure is not an option.

    I'm told the North Korean competitors here will spend months on their return being 'debriefed'. To make sure there heads haven't been turned by experiences outside of the borders of the world's most secretive and self-reliant nation, where Kim Jong Un rules in a climate of obedience. 'Embarrassment' to this nation is not taken lightly.

    But the man in red, from the nation that calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, loses. Victory 3-1 to South Korea and a place in the quarter-finals. Elimination for the North Korean men's team.

    Strange to think that a tiny ping pong ball whizzing back and forth across a table could mean so much.

    But this was more than a game of table tennis.


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