“I’d just like to thank God for helping me …” Yep, that’s a standard press conference line.
“I’d like to dedicate this medal to our glorious leader Kim Jong-un.” Wow! That’s a new one on me.
The diving competition at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan sprang a huge surprise as North Korea won its first ever gold … and prompted a surreal press conference at the Water Sports Palace.
Teen sensation Kim Kuk-hyang, 16, sparked the excitement. Picking up two perfect 10s for her last dive in the 10m platform final, she ramped up the pressure on defending champion Si Yajie of China. Composure shattered, the Chinese girl produced a sub-par plunge that dropped her out of the medals altogether. China’s Ren Qian and the God-loving Malaysian Pandelela Rinong, veteran of the 2012 Olympics, completed the podium.
Then came the press conference. God, glorious leaders and stilted, haltingly translated exchanges. Kim stood to attention, military style, saluting the flag as the anthem played, before telling the world’s media: “I wanted to show my great appreciation for our national leader. When I go back to Korea all the people will come on to the streets to welcome us home.”
Seeing diving in the flesh for the first time was a shock. On TV it’s hard to get a sense of height or the speed of these performances. At poolside, watching a flash of lycra somersaulting before your eyes, it’s a different beast.
Reporting on it, for a novice, is far more challenging. Forewarned about the complexity of the attempted leaps, it’s easier to make some sense of the marking. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the judging is based on making the finest imaginable margin calls at lightning speed, time after time. But this contest was a battle of styles. Si was relentlessly consistent until her stumble at the last; Kim was unpredictable, getting stellar scores for demanding dives but seeing average returns for less challenging routines. It was that final jump, the most demanding on the program, that nailed the gold. It was the single highlight of the diving events, which were mostly dominated by the Chinese and which left the much-touted Mexicans frustrated by a lack of medals.
As with all the events in Kazan during the championships, the divers attracted an enthusiastic crowd. Any whiff of Russian success at any stage was greeted with huge ovations but the whole competition was warmly received in a city that is staking its future on becoming Russia’s sporting capital.
For more of what I was doing in Kazan, please see back issues of the World Championships Herald.