On the opening night of the 2018 Winter Olympics, journalists and photographers from around the world assembled in a large cabin in the shadow of the Kwandong Hockey Centre. Some sipped tea, having stepped indoors from the teeth-chattering cold, others were seated by tables; reading, typing, preparing for the historic evening ahead.
From the public address system, a voice issued a warning in English, reminding the media of the importance of the occasion, of the stature of the dignitaries who would be present in the arena they were about to enter. Equanimity, they were told, had to be maintained at all times.
There is always brouhaha when history is made. But when the world has time to foresee a momentous event, when sport and politics collide, anticipation builds into a chaotic crescendo, the intensity burning like a red-hot flame, as it did on the south east coast of South Korea when a unified Korean ice hockey team made its Olympic debut.
Just months previously, there were fears there could be conflict on the peninsula. but the Winter Olympics had given North and South Korea, two countries still technically at war, reason to talk again.
And so, on the grandest sporting stage of all, sport became secondary.
Given just weeks to train together, to assimilate and to bond, little was expected on the ice of the hastily-assembled group of 35 players. Then again, this wasn’t about winning.
The team was part of a political message, a tool for rapprochement in an attempt to slow down the North’s nuclear program and the outcome of a plan cobbled together by representatives of both governments during discussions at the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.
Creating an inter-Korean team was a controversial move — many in South Korea protested against it — but what was it like to be on the team, at the center of a geopolitical drama?
‘I thought it was a scam email’
Growing up in Canada, Caroline Park was obsessed with ice hockey. She would watch her older brother Michael play with his friends on the street and feign illness before piano lessons to join them.
One day, when watching a segment on the news about South Korean ice hockey, Park dreamed big like every child should. “It’d be so cool if one day I could play for them,” she marveled.
As the years went by, Park continued to play, her mum accepting that her daughter would not become a pianist or a gymnast, but over time aspirations of sporting stardom were replaced with ambitions of becoming a doctor.
It was while working as a clinical research assistant at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City in 2013 that the Princeton graduate received an unexpected email from the Korean Ice Hockey Association.
“I initially thought it was a scam email,” she says, laughing before continuing the story.
“I texted my dad and asked: ‘Did you send this to me?’ I know we joked about it when I was young but it’s not really funny.'”
Her father, Sandy, persuaded Park to reply and a week later she flew to Korea for the first time for a two-week tryout in the country of her parents’ birth which led to a place on the team.
Unsettling, distracting, mixed emotions
There is not much passion for ice hockey in South Korea. The women’s team was formed in 1999 and lost its first international, against Kazakhstan, 17-1.
Neither the men’s or women’s team had competed at a Winter Olympics prior to 2018 but, as hosts, South Korea did not have to qualify for PyeongChang 2018.
To avoid humiliation at a home Games, the Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) searched the globe and recruited several North Americans of Korean heritage — Park was one of five on the roster — and backed the team financially.
The investment paid dividends. In the years leading to the 2018 Olympics, both the men and women improved, with the women climbing above Italy, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the world rankings and winning a second-division world championship tournament. But then came upheaval.
Just over three weeks before South Korea was to take on Switzerland in its opening match of a home Games, it was announced that North Korean players would join the ranks.
After years of creating a sense of togetherness between South Korean-born players and those of Korean heritage, now there was disruption and dismay as athletes who were largely a mystery had to be integrated.
“I actually heard about it from some of my friends who read about it in the New York Times,” says Park who, by this time, had been accepted to Columbia medical school and was taking a year out to focus on the Games.
“I didn’t really know what was going on because at that time we were on a break from a training camp, so I was back home in Canada. The day I was flying back to meet the team, that’s when the news started trickling in.
“There were a lot of mixed emotions, especially as we didn’t know how logistically everything was going to work out. It was pretty tough.
“We had been a unit, a team which had been training together, competing together at World Championships, seeing each other every day, and this was weeks out from the biggest competition of our lives so it was a little unsettling and definitely distracting.”
‘I don’t think people realize how close our team got’
The International Olympic Committee allowed the Korean federation to expand the team’s roster to 35 players, which meant 12 North Koreans could be incorporated without any South Koreans being dropped.
But only 22 players could be involved in each game and at least three North Koreans had to take to the ice.
Randi Griffin, the player who would score the team’s first Olympic goal, described the unification as an “invasion of our autonomy,” while starting goalie Shin So-jung told the newspaper Chosun Ilbo that the team was “devastated.”
Certainly there were difficulties in integrating players from beyond the 38th parallel, especially as they slept in separate dorms and traveled on different buses.
A three-page dictionary was produced to help ease the linguistic differences between those from the North and South. Adding to the language problems was the fact that English was the team’s lingua franca, mainly because the coach was 29-year-old Canadian Sarah Murray.
“We had to put up translations in our team room and took it upon ourselves to adapt to them and they made an effort to adapt to us,” explains Park, adding that the squad did not do anything “out of the ordinary” to accelerate the bonding process. Indeed, according to reports, the team bonded by dancing and singing to K-pop in the dressing room and also ate dinner together.
“Our dynamic was pretty natural and even with the import players like myself, and a few of the others who have a language barrier, it was pretty incredible how close we were able to get to them and the bonds we were able to form with them. You can’t really force that. They were actually quite outgoing and very friendly.
“When I look back on it, I actually think it made our team dynamic even better or stronger.
“I don’t think people realize how close our team got between the North and South Korean players. People didn’t see us in the changing rooms or during meals so I don’t think they really understand how strong our dynamic was.”
Protestors, supporters, being overwhelmed
Being a political experiment has a tendency to thrust a team into the spotlight. Suddenly, interest in women’s ice hockey elevated around the world.
According to the New York Times, the approval ratings of President Moon Jae-in — a vocal supporter of the inter-Korean team — took a dip when the announcement was made in January 2018.
A petition against the unified team was formed and when the women came together for the first time on the ice, losing 3-1 to Sweden in a friendly, before a capacity 3,000 crowd in Incheon, protestors and supporters faced off outside the arena, chanting “Peace Olympics” and “Pyongyang Olympics,” depending which side of the fence they were on.
Neither Park or her teammates received formal media training but, she says, they were aware they needed to use their words carefully. Not only were they now Olympians but diplomats, too.
“At the beginning, when we were at the training camp it was fine because we were still secluded from everything so we knew it was big deal but we weren’t really exposed to the outside world,” she says.
“I think it was a week out, before we went to the village and we went to Seoul, that we recognized how big an impact it was.
“There was so much media, a lot of public protestors, and people who were supporting it, coming to our exhibition games. It was pretty overwhelming at the beginning.
“Any time there’s that much attention on you, it’s only natural to try to be a little bit more careful about what you say because it can get blown up quickly. Personally, I don’t think I said anything I didn’t mean.”
The power of sport
Athletes from the North and South had not played on the same team since an international table tennis championship and youth soccer tournament in 1991.
Why was the women’s team, ranked 22nd in the world at this point, sacrificed?
The South’s sports minister, Roh Tae-kang, was criticized for saying it was okay to merge the women’s teams because neither had any hope of winning a medal.
Nevertheless, through discord came political unity.
Before the team’s opening match against Switzerland on February 10, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, watched the match alongside South Korean president Moon Jae-in. It was the first time a member of the North ruling family had visited the South since the armistice agreement in 1953.
“Before you even got onto the ice you could hear the crowd,” says Park. “It was a lot to take in. Stepping onto the ice for the warm-up, it sent shivers down your spine.”
The team went on to lose 8-0 to the Swiss and were defeated by the same score to Sweden three days later. There was little to cheer on the ice, though that did not dampen the spirits of the North Korean cheerleaders, a troupe of over 200 women with tight-lipped smiles who captured global attention during the Games for their choreographed, often mesmerizing, routines.
“They stole the show,” a South Korean player once said, but for Park they were not a distraction.
“It was when I was watching highlights of the game or sports coverage on the news that I was able to take in what it looked like,” she admits.
The team lost all their matches at PyeongChang 2018, but did find the net in a 4-1 defeat by bitter rivals Japan. That puck is now at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Canada.
By February 26, the unified team’s 33 days together had come to an end and early that morning, at the athletes’ village, it was time for the players to say their farewells.
There were warm embraces and tears, and as the North Koreans boarded their bus, they opened windows and reached their arms out to prolong the goodbyes.
“At the end of the Games it was disbelief that it had come and gone, it felt like it had gone by really quickly,” says Park.
“Looking back now, [I’m] so much more fonder of the experience. In the moment, so much had happened leading up to it, especially a month before the Games when we found out the team was going to be unified. I feel that everything was such a blur at the time.
“In the moment, we were just so caught up in terms of practicing and adjusting to the new dynamics it was hard, at least for me personally, to grasp how big a deal it actually was.
“Overall, in terms of Korea and ice hockey, I think it was a huge stepping stone in opening people’s eyes in Korea to ice hockey.”
These days, South Korea — a country with 365 registered female players among a population of 51 million — and North Korea’s women’s teams are ranked 16th and 28th in the world rankings respectively.
A catalyst for change
Two months after the Olympics, Kim and Moon met for inter-Korean talks, the North Korean leader crossing into the South for the first time since the Korean war. There weren’t just handshakes between the two leaders but hugs, too.
In a joint declaration, the two men said “there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.”
There were two further summits in 2018, with Moon becoming the first South Korean president since 2007 to travel North, and, in June 2018, a meeting was held between US President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore — the first summit between the sitting leaders of their two countries.
Washington and Pyongyang have hammered out details of a second summit later this month, while economic, cultural and personal exchanges between the North and South have also since followed the Winter Olympics.
“I would like to think we played some part in it. I’m sure it was a small role, but it definitely kind of helped to some extent,” says Park of the unified team’s part in the political developments of the last year.
Park does not anticipate there being another unified women’s ice hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in three years’ time, though Michael Madden, visiting scholar of the US-Korea Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, tells CNN Sport that it should not come as a surprise were the countries to unify in a sport at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year.
They may even walk together in the opening ceremony, he says, just as they did for PyeongChang 2018.
“It did facilitate increase contacts and cooperation between the two Koreas following the Winter Olympics,” says Madden of the unified women’s team, pointing out that there were those who had wrongly predicted that the team would create a wedge between the US and South Korean diplomatic, political and military alliance.
“Thinking about it retrospectively, it was important because a lot of serious think tank people commented to a lot of serious media organizations in the US about this. These were all vested in the Olympic Games splitting the alliance.
“The Olympics were a critical event. The Koreans picked this for a reason. If we look back on it historically we’re going to find that the Olympics galvanized a lot, and for North Korean and South Korean policy makers it was a conscious intention because it was the global stage.”