The year was 1987 and Seoul, South Korea, was gearing up to host the 1988 summer Olympics. Just months earlier, South Koreans demanded a removal of the country’s authoritarian regime and attempted a reasonably successful presidential election.
South Korea was in a state of progressive change and North Korea took notice. In November 1987, North Korea bombed a Korean Air passenger plane protesting the upcoming Seoul Olympics and placed fear in organizers, athletes and attendees across the world.
Nearly 30 years later, after countless and mostly failed attempts at peace, the two divisive countries are joining together in the most unexpected way — an Olympic women’s ice hockey team.
The first breakthrough in this series of unexpected events occurred when North Korea was given the go-ahead to send athletes to the games. Then, not even two weeks later, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) approved South Korea’s proposal to create the joint women’s hockey team — the first of its kind in Olympic history, according to The Atlantic. North and South Korea joined athletic efforts in 1991 at the world table tennis championships and at the soccer World Youth Championship, but never in an Olympic capacity.
Thousands of athletes and attendees will congregate in the remote mountain town of Pyeongchang, approximately an hour from the North Korean border Feb. 9. The IOC allowed for 22 North Korean athletes to attend the winter games, 12 of which belong to the newly formed hockey team.
Seoul has promoted the games as the “Peace Olympics.” But with the border so close to the games, there is plenty of worry to go around.
We saw it in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, we will see it again this year — the Olympics are becoming more politics than sport. In 2017, The Los Angeles Times reported on the worry Olympic officials will carry into the games.
“The Games have always been politicized,” said Michael Heine, director of the International Center for Olympic Studies in Canada, in the article.
The question, however, is not what might happen, but why is it happening? Why women’s ice hockey acting as the olive branch at these games?
No one is sure of the answer to any of these questions. But the answer might have something to do with women’s ice hockey taking a backseat to men’s hockey viewership and the ranking of both Korean teams separately.
The South Korean team sits at no. 22 while the North Korean team sits at no. 25. Neither ranking makes the unusual pairing a medal contender. Given the team will have had less than a month to train before the women’s ice hockey tournament begins, the unlikeliness of a cohesive and well-prepared team becomes even more of an improbability.
It makes sense to embark on this trial run with a less recognizable sport, but South Korean players should be discouraged by the understandably unexpected burden they were given just a month before taking the ice — and they haven’t let it go unnoticed.
The players asked not to be made into a political statement, but their pleas were met with disregard, The New York Times reported in June.
While it is more likely this new Korean hockey team will grab just some screen time during the Olympics than as a triumphant underdog story on the big screen, there is no doubt this move will shed more light on the politics of sports.
Hailey Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at Hailey_ann97