Breaking the ice: inside Korea’s unified women’s ice hockey team
On 20th January 2018 the world was stunned to hear that a unified Korean sports team would play at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Just months previously it had looked as though the peninsula could be heading to war, and now, suddenly, there seemed to be a chance for reconciliation. But could an ice hockey team really succeed where three generations of diplomats couldn’t?
20th January 2018 (Taken from: #30)
In January the war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un descended into farce. In a New Year’s Day speech broadcast on state TV, the North Korean dictator declared that the launch button for his country’s newly completed nuclear arsenal was on his desk. The US president responded with characteristic bombast, tweeting that he had a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button on his desk and that, unlike Kim’s, his actually worked.
The headline-grabbing bluster and brinkmanship eclipsed a surprising moment towards the end of Kim’s speech. He said he was considering sending North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea the following month. Shortly afterwards, officials from the two Koreas met in the demilitarized border zone (DMZ) for the time in two years to discuss details. On 20th January Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), confirmed that the two nations would march together at the Pyeongchang Games’ opening ceremony on 9th February. Even more unexpectedly, Bach said that the IOC would let the two Koreas field a unified women’s ice hockey team.
Three months after Bach’s surprise announcement, an inch-thick disk of vulcanised rubber sits in a box in downtown Toronto. The puck was grabbed from the ice moments after it trickled through the legs of a Japanese goalie at South Korea’s Kwandong Hockey Centre on Valentine’s Day 2018.
It was taken to the offices of the International Ice Hockey Federation in Seoul, which decided that this momento from the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team’s first ever goal belonged at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Canada, a shrine for the greatest artefacts in the sport’s history.
“It was such a crappy shot,” says Randi Griffin, the 29-year-old who scored the goal. “People ask how I feel about my puck being in the Hall of Fame, but it’s not ‘my’ puck – every person in our team touched it and contributed to this trash goal. I just happened to be the last person to touch it. Honestly, I didn’t see where the puck had gone and I didn’t even know I’d scored. I didn’t deserve the attention I got.”
It may have been a crappy goal, but it sent the Pyeongchang crowd into raptures. It wasn’t merely that Griffin had scored the unified Korean team’s first goal. It was also that it had been scored against Japan, a country whose colonisation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945 remains a point of bitter resentment on both sides of the 38th parallel. As the Korean players embraced their reluctant hero, thousands of fans waved the blue and white flag of reunification. Almost 200 North Korean cheerleaders in parkas, dubbed the “army of beauties” by the South Korean media, performed the kind of perfectly synchronised dance routines seen each year at the Mass Games in Pyongyang.
Not everybody was as delighted as the many spectators who filmed the cheer squad on their smartphones, however. Some fans stubbornly waved South Korean flags, and on the streets of Pyeongchang protesters tore up posters of Kim Jong-un and shouted “Pyongyang Olympics”, claiming that their country’s Games had been hijacked by its hostile northern neighbour.
The unified Korean team had lost its first match 8-0 to Switzerland on 10th February and its second by the same score to Sweden three days later, but away from the ice things seemed to be going better than anyone had expected. Flanked by bodyguards Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, watched the Switzerland game alongside South Korean president Moon Jae-in. The first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the South since the armistice agreement of 1953, Kim Yo-jong had also attended the opening ceremony, where the two countries’ athletes marched under the reunification flag. The two Koreas, which are formally still at war, and which had seemingly been on the brink of conflict just a few months earlier, had been brought together not by the United Nations, the United States or China – but by a sporting event.
When Randi Griffin received an email from the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) in 2014 inviting her to join the national team she thought it was a hoax. She had played ice hockey at Harvard, where she studied as an undergraduate, but had been out of the game for almost five years.
“I thought it was crazy,” she tells me, two months after the 2018 Games’ closing ceremony. “I didn’t understand how they found me or how they thought I could still play hockey. I think they asked everyone of Korean origin who had ever played hockey at a high standard. There aren’t many of us, so I guess that’s why they scraped the bottom of the barrel with someone like me.”
Several months and emails later, Griffin agreed to join the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. She was very rusty, prone to injury and entirely unfamiliar with the country of her mother’s birth. “My Korean language skills are extremely rudimentary,” she says. “But I was surprised to discover that most of the team’s operations happened in English.”
English had become the team’s lingua franca because KIHA had hired a young and ambitious Canadian coach, Sarah Murray. To reduce the prospect of being humiliated in the 2018 Olympics, for which they automatically qualified as the host nation, South Korea’s ice hockey federation, with significant help from corporate backers, put serious money behind the project. They recruited several North Americans of Korean heritage, including Griffin, and paid for inexperienced young players from South Korea to live and play competitively in the US and Canada.
It was tough because we knew that if we said the wrong thing we’d make half of South Korea hate our guts”
South Korea doesn’t have an ice hockey tradition. The national team didn’t exist until 1999 – its inauspicious debut was a 17-1 defeat to Kazakhstan – and the domestic league is, as Griffin puts it, “a joke”. “To have a national team in the Olympics you technically need to have a league,” she explains. “Every year they pulled together all the hockey players they could find including little kids, old people and us on the national team, who got yelled at if we tried too hard. They mixed us up into a bunch of teams so if you look at the roster for the Olympics it says I play for the Avengers, which only exists for a couple of weeks each year.”
South Korea’s league may not be competitive, but Griffin says the national team improved enormously over the three years leading up to the Games. It steadily climbed the world rankings, and even after a winless Winter Olympics is ranked 16th in the world, above Italy, Great Britain and the Netherlands. “Our Olympic target was to win a game,” says Griffin. “We’d improved so much we thought we would surprise people and be competitive, especially against Japan. For all of last year we intensively prepared for these five games.”
Their preparations would be thrown into disarray just three weeks before the start of the Olympics. “I found out about the unified team from a New York Times alert on my phone,” says Griffin. “We had just finished our last training camp in Minnesota. My teammates were ambushed by reporters at the airport who heard about it before they did.”
My instinct is that we would have done better without the North Koreans because of the very negative impact on team morale”
Griffin first heard rumours about a unified team in the summer of 2017, but none of her teammates ever thought it would happen. “I asked them if they were worried and they’d say they weren’t,” she recalls. “They said it would be logistically impossible and extremely complicated. The attitude towards the idea [in the team] was extremely negative.” As predicted, the move to a unified team complicated things. “In terms of functioning as a hockey team, all the systems we’d been working on, it was extremely disruptive,” says Griffin.
The IOC allowed KIHA to expand the team roster to 35 players so 12 North Koreans could be incorporated without any South Koreans having to be axed completely. But a maximum of just 22 players could be involved in each game, and the agreement stipulated that at least three North Koreans had to take to the ice. “[South Korean] players who had been practising and earning their spots now wouldn’t get to play in the Olympics,” Griffin says. “It felt like an invasion of our autonomy as a team having politicians telling the coach that certain people had to play.”
Adding to the disruption, Griffin and her teammates had been thrust into the centre of a spectacular high-stakes diplomatic gambit – and the whole world wanted to hear their thoughts on it. “I tried to stay focused on the sport,” she recalls. “That’s what our coach told us to do and it’s what we said to the media. Every time they asked us about political stuff we just said we’re only there to play hockey. It was tough because we knew that if we said the wrong thing we’d make half of South Korea hate our guts.” She says it was hard for the players to speak freely. “Some people from KIHA told us not to say anything that wasn’t short and positive.”
But away from the cameras and microphones, they exchanged their thoughts on the bizarre circumstances they found themselves in. “We had the same debate on the team that everyone else was having,” says Griffin. “Were we making a sacrifice for a greater good or were we being sacrificed for a stunt that has very little actual meaning? For me it all felt extremely superficial.”
Another question the players asked each other in private was – why us? Griffin points to the South Korean sports minister Roh Tae-kang’s much-criticised remark that it was okay to merge the teams because neither had any hope of winning a medal, and questions why such an argument didn’t apply to the men’s teams, which were never considered for unification. “I think part of the problem is that half of the men’s South Korean team was white [seven of the players were naturalised South Korean citizens with no Korean heritage] and that didn’t look as good,” she says. “Having those white guys was how the men’s team survived in these Olympics.”
After the heavy defeat to the Swiss, an upbeat team coach celebrated the bonds being formed between her North and South Korean players. “The chemistry is better than I ever predicted,” said Sarah Murray at a press conference. “The players laugh together, they hang out together, they eat meals together. I walk into the locker room and you can’t tell who is from the North and who is from the South. They’re just girls playing hockey.”
Griffin saw things differently. “It was weird,” she recalls. “The North Korean players seemed friendly but were very guarded. The South Koreans would ask them stuff about their lives and they’d answer with glowing reviews of the best country in the world with the best leader, but those questions weren’t ever reciprocated. They didn’t ask us any questions that weren’t completely superficial. I think a few players formed genuine connections. The North Koreans thought the girls with funny personalities on our team, the class clowns, were hilarious – they’d never met anyone with humour like theirs. But there was an awkwardness to the whole thing.”
The communication gap between the South and North Koreans also caused problems on the ice. “I’d have a North Korean as one of my wingers and I’d say something to her and she’d look back at me with a blank stare,” says Griffin. “The North Koreans had their own hockey vocabulary, which made things hard, even between them and South Koreans. We were scrambling to do three-way translations, so it was chaotic.”
The choreographed North Korean dance moves that accompanied every game only added to this sense of chaos. “The cheerleaders were impossible to ignore,” Griffin remembers. “We tried but they were very disruptive – their cheering was totally disconnected from the game and they kept doing awkward things like cheering over pop music that was playing in the arena. People were meant to be there for the hockey but we kept hearing interviews with spectators who said they were there for the cheerleaders. They stole the show, and that was hard to swallow. And I kept wondering who they really were. When you watch them you know it’s not coming from the heart. They’re all identical, the same fake smiles plastered on their faces. They were there for propaganda, obviously.”
Although the team lost all its five games, it did improve as the tournament progressed. A second game against the Swiss on 18th February resulted in only a 2-0 defeat, and they scored their second and final goal in a 6-1 loss to Sweden a couple of days later. “It’s impossible to say for sure but my instinct is that we would have done better without the North Koreans because of the very negative impact on team morale,” says Griffin. “Part of that was the way our coach dealt with the situation. She seemed to love working with the North Koreans and I think that’s because they were very submissive and malleable – their entire job was to show up and create a good impression, and I don’t think they were that worried about hockey. They considered themselves ambassadors, there to make everybody think that North Koreans are nice, normal people.”
Griffin says that the end of the Olympics were accompanied by a big sigh of relief from many of the players. “The team was completely co-opted by more powerful entities that wanted to tell a certain kind of story,” she says. Now finishing her PhD on evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in her native North Carolina, Griffin fears for the future of the South Korean team. She says all the North Americans but one have expressed a desire to keep working to develop ice hockey in the country. “But now the Olympics is over a lot is up in the air in terms of funding and support,” she says. “It feels a little bit like KIHA are not as interested any more, and they no longer want to work with us.”
On 27th April, Kim Jong-un met Moon Jae-in the joint security area in the DMZ. Photos of the leaders embracing each other and pledging to formally end the war in the Korean peninsula were seen throughout the world. Six weeks later, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un signed a joint agreement in Singapore.
“I don’t think we’d be in the position we’re in now had it not been for the opportunity that the Winter Olympics provided,” says Dr J Simon Rofe, who teaches the Sport and Diplomacy course at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London. “Sport provides a catalyst for diplomacy,” he adds. “And the Winter Olympics was a diplomatic summit by any other name. It’s an important facet of how we got to where we are now.”
Do you really want to just dump all these people into South Korea and expect them to integrate into a modern capitalist society? That’s not going to happen easily”
But even if negotiations bring about peace on the peninsula, the broader goal of reunification may prove elusive. “It’s difficult to make direct connections between the unified team and the political climate,” says Griffin. “But from all the conversations I’ve had in Korea I’ve come to appreciate that although these two countries share a language and a history up to a point, they are profoundly different places that have developed in profoundly different ways. I used to think ‘Why not?’ about reunification but now it seems almost impossible to me, and maybe insane. I understand why young South Koreans who are thinking about their financial futures are saying, ‘Do you really want to just dump all these people into South Korea and expect them to integrate into a modern capitalist society?’ That’s not going to happen easily. I feel less optimistic now.”
There is one other good reason for scepticism – we’ve been here before. Although North Korea boycotted the Seoul Games in 1988, athletes from the two Koreas marched under the flag of reunification in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and Turin in 2006. Sports diplomacy in the Korean peninsula has only ever offered short-term fixes. But maybe this time really is different. Maybe that puck in the Toronto museum will represent a significant step on the road to peace and perhaps even reunification – the first moment the two Koreas worked together to achieve a shared goal, as crappy as it may have been.
Or perhaps peace talks will collapse once again and it will just be another puck in an ice hockey museum. A memento of a mishit, and a bittersweet reminder of what could have been.
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