By J.A. Adande
The Switzerland-Korea women’s hockey game on the first full day of Olympic action was the least-competitive, most-politicized sporting event I’ve ever covered. And that might be a good thing.
This moment called for a recalibration. A Swiss forward who scored four goals wasn’t the woman who made history Saturday night. Switzerland’s dominant, 8-0, victory wasn’t the most impressive team performance. And the squad on the wrong side of that score could just possibly wind up being the catalyst for the most significant progress the Korean peninsula has seen in a century.
And if you think that last line is hyperbole, you’re ignoring the momentum that’s already been established. Instead of the North Korean-sponsored terrorist attacks that preceded the last Olympic games held in South Korea in 1988, or even pending sense of war initiated by the recently aggressive North, these games have inspired collaboration and diplomatic breakthroughs.
The women’s hockey team features three players from North Korea. Their presence has brought about changes both small and large, from a different three-letter Olympic country abbreviation for the team (“COR” instead of South Korea’s usual “KOR”) to the attendance of Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un. Her arrival at the Kwandong Hockey Centre Saturday created the biggest buzz of the night. Prior to this past week no member of their ruling family had set foot in South Korea, let alone attended a game there. She also extended an invitation South Korean President Moon Jae-In to meet with her brother, which made for a front-page story on the New York Times website.
So, yeah, um, what did you say the final score was again?
Seeing the diplomatic breakthroughs and sitting by the energized Korean fans waving the unified Korean flag (a solid blue outline of the Korean peninsula on a white background), made it feel as if this has the potential to become the ultimate realization of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of bringing the world together through the celebration of athletics.
“As small as this goes, being unified through sport, hopefully that can be a small step to something bigger,” said Yoonjung Park, a South Korean-born, American-raised defenseman on the team. “Very special to be a part of.”
There’s still some tension and doubt. An example of that came not on the ice but on the sea, where a ship that brought a 140-member North Korean art troupe to an Olympic-related arts festival sits off the South Korean coastline, doubling as their housing. According to the Korea Herald, the North Koreans have asked South Korea to pay for the ship’s refueling costs. Fuel is one of the restricted, hard-to-come-by commodities in North Korea. This little test of the limits of this collaborative mood represents the pessimistic side of this, that it could all be a means for North Korea to exploit the goodwill of these Olympics and escape the economic sanctions imposed on the brutal regime without tempering its nuclear weapons buildup.
The United States government has wanted no part of this feel-good story. Vice President Mike Pence has continued his harsh rhetoric against North Korea, and he neither interacted with Kim Yo-jong nor stood for the Korean team’s entry at the Opening Ceremonies. Of course, that prompted calls of hypocrisy for Pence’s grandstanding walkout on kneeling NFL players during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers-Indianapolis Colts game last fall, including Sporting News columnist David Steele’s tweet: “Sooooo to dramatize his political stance while at a sporting event, the vice president chose not to stand as a gesture of protest. Wonder where he got that idea.”
Sooooo to dramatize his political stance while at a sporting event, the vice president chose not to stand as a gesture of protest. Wonder where he got that idea. https://t.co/lAbPwMMZ8Y
— David Steele (@David_C_Steele) February 9, 2018
The progress might happen with our without input from the United States. And women are playing a prominent role. That even includes the North Korean cheerleading team, impossible to ignore in their red-and-white outfits and synchronized movements. They might be ambassadors or they might be propaganda agents. The jury’s still out. At the Kwandong Hockey Centre they filed in before the game, gave one-handed parade waves and filled the first two rows of seats. They carried out their agenda no matter what the score of the game or the music in the arena (such as the time they clapped and waved flags and sang their own tune while the Kanye West/Daft Punk collaboration “Stronger” played over the loudspeakers).
Even the players noticed.
“They’re very…in unison, aren’t they?” was the description Park settled on.
Is it a chorus of harmony or a siren’s song? Normally sports provides definitive answers, winners and losers. This hockey game left us with possibilities instead. That’s what made it special.