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Vlog the Inhaler, or The Occasional Video Blog Musings of Jim Thornton

Shocking North Korean Swim Surgery

Rating: 7 votes, 5.00 average.
Part of me finds this truly revolting. Nevertheless, check the photo at the end. I can't say I've ruled the procedure out entirely, especially once the B70 becomes illegal.

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Controversial North Korean surgery roils waters of international competitive swimming

By JAKE D. RAINS

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (Reuters Health) - In a study likely to create a tsunami in the already roiled waters of international competitive swimming, doctors in this secretive but sports-obsessed nation have reported a breakthrough in what they call "Spatulization Surgery" for swimming enhancement.

The procedure, which was performed last summer on all 15 senior members of the elite North Korean National Swimming Team, takes an average of nine hours to complete and requires at least two weeks of postoperative recovery in a hospital setting. This is followed by eight months of intensive rehabilitation designed to allow the swimmers to adjust to the significant changes in their limbs. The researchers behind the procedure describes the improvements as nothing short of "miraculous optimizations for swimming performance."

But witnesses from FINA, invited to monitor last week's national swimming and diving championships, had a different description. "These 'swimmers'," said one FINA representative who asked not to be identified by name, "no longer look human. They've been mutilated."

Unable to maneuver on land, the 15 swimmers have each been equipped with a customized electric mobility scooter manufactured by the American-based Rascal Company. Such devices are most commonly associated with the geriatric population, not world-class athletes in the prime of life.

Regardless of the considerable terrestrial handicaps the swimmers now face, no one denies the surgically altered North Koreans are remarkably quick and graceful in the water--easily slicing as much as 3-4 percent off world record times established at last summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Because of various FINA technical rules and standards, the times set this week at the Pyongyang National Natatorium do not officially count, leaving the current world records in tact, at least for now. Few swimming analysts, however, doubt that massive changes are coming to the sport this summer, when "spatulized" North Koreans are almost certain to dominate at the World Championships, in the process establishing new standards in the sport once considered unimaginable.
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"If we make this procedure illegal, what's next? Outlawing
shoulder surgery? Lasik? 'Spatulization' is a can of worms wrapped up in a Pandora's Box."
--anonymous spokesman from the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA)
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"Our performances at nationals only hint of what's to come," says Kwion Namgoong, head coach for the North Korean team, through an interpreter. "You must consider that our swimmers are just getting used to their new, how you say, attributes. By summer, the times we've seen this week will look like lazy warm-up speed."

FINA officials, already facing controversy and furor over how to regulate the latest generation of high tech speed suits, acknowledge they aren't sure what can be done, if anything, to halt the new surgery.

Unlike drugs such as anabolic steroids and blood-doping medications, or even the neoprene wet favored by swim-impaired triathletes, suits that allow swimmers to float unsportingly high in the water, there are no precedents for banning surgery in sport.

"If we do find a way to outlaw this," says one obviously flummoxed FINA observer, "then it will open the floodgates to all kinds of lawsuits. Spatulization digusts me, and I doubt you will be able to sell the procedure to swimmers who have a free choice in the matter. But if we make this illegal, what's next? Shoulder surgery? Lasik? It's a can of worms wrapped up in a Pandora's Box."

Accident leads to smashing success

The procedure was first discovered serendipitously during the bitterly cold winter of 2004. Dockko Tung, 27, a freight hauler and recreational swimmer, was severely injured while unloading his truck. Pallets containing multiple 100 lb. bags of rice fell on his hands and feet, pinning these to an ice-covered stretch of highway.

The combination of ice and pressure, ironically, may have spared him amputation by keeping the squashed tissues in a kind of cryogenic "suspended animation" state till emergency crews were able to locate and extricate him four hours later.

But when ER surgeons were finally able to operate, however, the best they could do was to set the dozens of broken bones and reattach permanently stretched ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues in both his hands and feet.

Afterwards, Tung was left with enormous, flattened extremities. As one of his surgeons described it to the local government-sponsored newspaper, "These looked like the hands and feet of a cartoon character run over by steam roller." The same doctor later described his patient's hands and feet as resembling spatulas, adding that the accident had, in essence, "spatulized" him.

The term stuck.

After the operation, Tung was unable to walk or even stand for more than a minute at a time, and he turned to the pool for exercise. To the astonishment of the lifeguards at his community center facility, the "deformed and ostracized" 27-year-old was soon swimming nearly world-class times, thanks to hands that functioned as de facto swim paddles and feet that served as oversized fins.

It did not take long before word of his abilities reached the North Korean Sports Authority, which promptly assigned a team of researchers to pioneer the same surgery for the national swim team.

As a result of his contributions to North Korean "guygen"--a neologism for "world glory," Tung soon became a national hero and frequent swim invitee at the palacial home of Kim Jong Il. At a state dinner for visiting dignitaries, Jong Il, who prefers to be addressed as "Dear Leader," was reportedly so eager to show off Dockko Tung's prowess that he placed the young man in an Endless Pool (http://www.endlesspools.com/indexi.html) that had been set up next to the formal dining table.

For the "amusement" of the guests, Tung was left to swim nonstop for 17 hours. In his hospital bed later, where Tung was being treated for water in the lungs, he maintained he had gladly and voluntarily participated in the lengthy exhibition swim.

It is not known whether all 15 spatulized national team members willingly volunteered for the procedure or were pressured into it. Regardless, the next generation of North Korean swimmers is likely already moving into the pipeline. Reports suggest that at least 1,700 North Korean junior swimmers, some as young as 6 and 1/2, have been given psychiatric medications before being presented with a surgical consent forms. To date, all have signed.

Whether the procedure will catch on in nations with less repressive political regimes remains to be seen. Americans, for their part, pride themselves on individual liberties and seem unlikely to bow to governmental pressures.

On the other hand, U.S. culture has a long philosophical tradition of doing "anything to win." It remains to be seen if US swimmers, the world's best as recently as last month, will surrender their domination or instead answer the North Korean challenge with a gungho adoption of even more draconian surgeries. "I'm confident that our doctors," said one former world record holder from the University of Texas, "can beat the North Koreans in the pool and on the operating room table."

He paused just a beat before breaking out in a chant, "USA! USA! USA!"

As for the first of the pioneering race of aquatic athletes, a reporter watched all 15 largely expressionless North Korean swimmers drive their Rascals to the edge of the pool and slide into the water.

It was the morning after the meet's conclusion, and already these swimmers were back getting ready for their next competition.

On land, this reporter found their emotions almost impossible to read. Nevertheless, in the water, an almost otter-like sense of liberation emerged on their faces, as these strange new specimens sped back and forth nonstop for hours in the confines of their training tank.
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I asked a surgeon friend at UPMC Sports Medicine Center in Pittburgh about spatulization, and he told me he and his colleagues have actually known about this for the past six months. They plan to offer swimmers in the US a new variation on the procedure that they've recently pioneered. The surgery itself is very similar to the North Korean procedure, but during the follow up period, the Pittsburgh group plans to use a proprietary instrument, much like the surgical version of a meat tenderizing mallet, to prevent scar tissue from forming too quickly and shrinking the spatulized limbs. This picture is a computer simulation of what Dr. F. says I will look like by the summer of 2010, provided I schedule my own surgery no later than August, 2009.

You will note I am not wearing a B-70 or any other form of speed suit in this picture, nor have I shaved, lost weight, or lubed my skin with slippery unguents.

Dr. F. assures me no such tactics will be necessary.

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Updated May 28th, 2009 at 02:44 PM by jim thornton

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Comments

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  1. Bobinator's Avatar
    Is this true, or just an early April Fools Day joke?
  2. Swimmy's Avatar


    It has to be true! Jim would never lie to us! Good luck!
    When the nice men in white coats come, go quietly, Jim!
  3. RustyScupperton's Avatar
    If there were any justice in the world this reporter fellow Jake Rains would have Pulitzers "raining" down on him for breaking such an important story. And the Inhaler's Vlog would share i the Prize Money for "aggregating" this story from that hertofore unheard of news group "Reuters Sports">
    Well done sir!
  4. jim thornton's Avatar
    To the best of my knowledge, this is as true as almost anything you see in the Internet, and probably truer than most. I am still, however, checking with Reuters to make sure that Jake D. Rains posted this report. It does have a faint snifter of urban legend to it. Then again, in today's world, what doesn't?
  5. jim thornton's Avatar
    Thanks, Mr. Scupperton. But it's Reuters Health, which I can assure you is as real as an apochryphal heart attack.
  6. tjrpatt's Avatar
    Can these people stand enough to get on the blocks?
    Nice read!
  7. chaos's Avatar
    spatulization can actually enhance any extremity and i intend to take full advantage of it.
    stay tuned for the video of me flipping burgers (no hands) at my next bar-b-q.
  8. jim thornton's Avatar
    So that's the secret of Korean bar-b-que!
  9. jim thornton's Avatar
    This just posted on facebook by Art Caplan, world famous biomedical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania:

    Art Caplan at 9:41pm March 24 Those darn North Koreans. No respect for the ethos of sports
  10. RustyScupperton's Avatar
    If the hands and feet are really crushed and flattened, what gives them the strength for water cupping? Is it just the miasma of internal cartilaginous scarring in a form of "rigor almost mortis"? I just don't understand the science enough...
  11. jim thornton's Avatar
    I am still tracking down Jake D. Rains, and when I find him, I will ask him this excellent (and troubling) questions. I am not a medical doctor. In fact, I am not a doctor of any sort. Well, maybe on the basketball court. I have been called a Doctor of Dribbling, usually when I am not actually handling the ball. But anyhow, I think what the North Koreans have done does involve collagen deposition in a scar-like fashion that somehow keeps the tissues from collapsing. In the feet, a certain flexibility seems to give these mutilated swimmers an extra "flick" that is supposedly wicked fast.
  12. Bobinator's Avatar
    This is freaky. A body like this shoud be required to swim in the Special Olympics; I mean no disrespect but it is not normal mentally or physically.
    Are you sure you're not just joshing us Jimby?
  13. Bobinator's Avatar
    Ps. Thanks for the warmup advice, I will take it.
    I found out the suit is a legal swim skin. Should I try it in practice before the 1650? Should I warm-up in it? I am only going to wear it in 1650, 1000, 500 and 200 free. I'm just wearing an aquablade tank for fly, back and spring races.
    I hope I don't look stupid.
  14. knelson's Avatar
    I heard from Leslie she's decided to have her legs sewn together to give her a better SDK. She's dropping the name "Fortress" on here in favor of the more a propos "Hop-A-Long."
  15. jim thornton's Avatar
    Kurt, I am glad that Leslie opted not to go with the soubriquet, MF, which could be misinterpreted.

    Bob, you could never look stupid! From what I have heard, the B70 family of products work better if you go in with them already wet. This is different from the other speed suits, which generally work better if you go in the water with them dry to begin with. So unless I am overruled by more knowledgable folks, I would say yes: warm up in it. Also, if it helps you swim fast, you might want to use it for all your events. As for the possibility of joshing, you raise an interesting possibility. There are certain dangers and opportunities inherent in teaching Kindergarterners all day, one of which (and this exemplifes both danger and opportunity) is the possibility of guilelessness contagion...
  16. Kurt Dickson's Avatar
    Actually spatualization is not new. It dates back to at least 1981 when Bill Murray (Stripes) threatened the Aunt Jemima treatment to his lady friend.
  17. The Fortress's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by jim thornton
    Kurt, I am glad that Leslie opted not to go with the soubriquet, MF, which could be misinterpreted.

    Bob, you could never look stupid! From what I have heard, the B70 family of products work better if you go in with them already wet. This is different from the other speed suits, which generally work better if you go in the water with them dry to begin with. So unless I am overruled by more knowledgable folks, I would say yes: warm up in it. Also, if it helps you swim fast, you might want to use it for all your events. As for the possibility of joshing, you raise an interesting possibility. There are certain dangers and opportunities inherent in teaching Kindergarterners all day, one of which (and this exemplifes both danger and opportunity) is the possibility of guilelessness contagion...
    What kind of swim skin is it? B70 variety? I would say swim in it before your races, in practice once, so you can get used to the suit and turns in the suit. I wouldn't wear it in warm up on a regular basis though. That will cut into your promised 25 swims in the suit quickly, especially as you're in warm up for awhile. The chlorine is what makes the suit/seams break down more quickly.

    Kirk, too funny! However, I am not a sloppy flyer and think my legs stay together pretty well! I'm generally opposed to all surgical procedures, which is why shoulder preservation is of the highest importance.
  18. The Fortress's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by jim thornton
    Kurt, I am glad that Leslie opted not to go with the soubriquet, MF, which could be misinterpreted.

    Bob, you could never look stupid! From what I have heard, the B70 family of products work better if you go in with them already wet. This is different from the other speed suits, which generally work better if you go in the water with them dry to begin with. So unless I am overruled by more knowledgable folks, I would say yes: warm up in it. Also, if it helps you swim fast, you might want to use it for all your events. As for the possibility of joshing, you raise an interesting possibility. There are certain dangers and opportunities inherent in teaching Kindergarterners all day, one of which (and this exemplifes both danger and opportunity) is the possibility of guilelessness contagion...
    What kind of swim skin is it? B70 variety? I would say swim in it before your races, in practice once, so you can get used to the suit and turns in the suit. I wouldn't wear it in warm up on a regular basis though. That will cut into your promised 25 swims in the suit quickly, especially as you're in warm up for awhile. The chlorine is what makes the suit/seams break down more quickly.

    Kirk, too funny! However, I am not a sloppy flyer and think my legs stay together pretty well! I'm generally opposed to all surgical procedures, which is why shoulder preservation is of the highest importance.
  19. knelson's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Kurt Dickson
    Actually spatualization is not new. It dates back to at least 1981 when Bill Murray (Stripes) threatened the Aunt Jemima treatment to his lady friend.
    Or, for a more PG example, the children's book "Flat Stanley."
  20. Chicken of the Sea's Avatar
    As a good friend reminded me recently, "it sure beats speculumization".
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