Comment: South Korea women’s ice hockey team having Olympic dream denied because of politics is beyond cruel
Until last week, the South Korean women’s ice hockey team were just another group of athletes preparing for next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The team contained the usual tales of sweat and sacrifice, which are both remarkable and unremarkable in the context of Olympic athletes. Then, on Saturday, all their preparations were turned upside down as the International Olympic Committee confirmed that 12 North Korean players would join the South’s 23-player squad. At least three North Korean players will have to be included in the match-day squad of 22.
Much like the deluded Sepp Blatter before him you can imagine Thomas Bach, the IOC president, rehearsing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech as the news was announced. The countries, still technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict, will compete under the “unification flag”. It will be the first time a combined Korean team have appeared at the Olympics, while the North will also compete in figure skating, short-track speed-skating, cross-country and Alpine skiing.
Sport has been used to broker diplomatic breakthroughs before, most notably in “the ping-pong diplomacy” of 1971 when the United States sent its table tennis players to Beijing, which helped to reset its relations with China. “Fielding a joint team, more so than North Korea’s participation alone, would be a much better starting point for the improvement of North and South Korean relations,” Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, said.
Yet informed observers of the peninsula believe that Moon and Bach’s initiative will be used by the North to alleviate the economic sanctions imposed on it. You may also note that it is just the women’s ice hockey team that has been compromised. The men’s side have been left alone. Lee Nak-yeon, the South Korean prime minister, explained that as the women were ranked 22nd in the world, they were unlikely to win a medal (the men’s team, incidentally, are ranked 21st. So, that’s OK then!).
Sarah Murray, the women’s coach, was told of the possibility of integrating the sides less than a week before the announcement. All the team dynamics and harmony that have been building for four years must now be reset as several players from the South have to make way.
“It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics,” Murray said. “The players said in June not to make them a political statement and that they just want to play. I agreed with them.”
The idea that just because a group of athletes can be used in this way because they are not medal contenders runs against the very principle of the Olympic Movement itself. Representing your country at a home Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime event that these ice hockey players have worked towards for four years. To have that taken away three weeks before the event for the sake of the most tokenistic of gestures is beyond cruel.
“All of us had to give up something in our lives, but we’ve been striving toward one goal: to play in the Olympics,” goalkeeper Shin So-jung told the South Korean press. “We could bear it all because we’re proud to represent our country. That’s why we feel so devastated now.”
The South Korean public seem to agree and Moon’s approval rating has fallen from 73 per cent to 67 per cent in a week. If nothing else, it also exposes the bare-faced lie, oft repeated by Bach, that politics should not interfere in the Olympics. It does all the time, but just on the terms that Bach allows.