GANGNEUNG, Gangwon Province -- The unified Korean women’s hockey team lost 8-0 against Switzerland on Saturday’s preliminary round match, but there was an unmistakable good feeling among the South Korean audience. The combined athletes created a symbol of good will between the two Koreas that have been divided for over 70 years.
For the first time in any Olympics, the two countries still technically at war joined up to compete together in a unified team Korea at the Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung, facing off against the No. 6 team in the world.
A player from Switzerland is being challenged by Korean hockey players Kim Se-rin and Randi Heesoo Griffin. (Yonhap)
The match came a day after the hockey squad marched into the stadium together holding blue and white Korean Unification Flags at the gala opening ceremony in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium.
The emotion generated by the scene took many by surprise, especially younger South Koreans, who have largely seemed indifferent to the idea the two Koreas as one.
“I just felt enormous pride,” said Kim hyun-jin, a 22-year-old college student who was at the stadium to watch the game.
Also there were South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam.
“The simple ‘Korea’ on their chests gave me a sense of unity that I had never thought of,” Kim told The Korea Herald.
Ten other North Korean athletes will also be participating in the Winter Games under their own flags, including short-track speed skating, figure skating, alpine skating and cross-country skiing.
(From the fourth from the left in the thrid row) South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Kim Young-nam, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un are seen watching the two Korea's joint women's ice hockey team on Feb. 10, 2018. (Yonhap)
The hockey squad had a rough start: The combined team was formed less than a month before the Olympics and lost 3-1 during a friendly match against Sweden in their only practice game on Feb. 4.
A language divide created communication problems among the athletes during training, according to the team’s coach Sarah Murray.
The unified team’s message to create a sense of unity and nationalism also drew ire to some who think the idea of “one people” is no longer relevant.
The controversy was most visible in national politics, where conservatives criticized the North participation as unfair to the players from South. In more visible displays of dissatisfaction, far-right anti-North Korea groups burned pictures of Kim Jong-un.
Amid such mixed feelings, more attention was focused on the preliminary round that featured the combined Korea than any other events, according to Park Jae-yeong, 57-year-old businessman who watched the game on television.
“The two Koreas have come a long way since 1988,” recalled Park. Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, which Pyongyang boycotted, and also bombed Seoul-bound Korean Air Flight 858.
“Now, the two sides have become one again, at least for a while, despite whatever hidden motives behind the North’s participation. And that’s the spirit of sports, peace.”
By Bak Se-hwan (firstname.lastname@example.org