The players and staff pose for a White Card photo together with IIHF President René Fasel, IIHF Life Member Beate Grupp and Joel Bouzou, the President of the Peace and Sport initiative. Photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The details behind the ambitious peace project
Reuniting a divided peninsula isn’t easy. Unifying its hockey players to work together on the ice, however, is a great step toward a peaceful direction.
After a recent team practice the players of the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, from the north and south, came together for a “white card” team photo.
Joel Bouzou, the founder and President of the Peace and Sport initiative, was on-site to hand the team the white cards. These white cards were created to give athletes a way to symbolically show their belief in the power of sport to make the world a better place.
Following the ceremony, Bouzou expressed how proud he was of the hard work by the players and staff to make this event happen – as well as the unified Korean team’s Olympic campaign as a whole.
Over a year ago, this was just a vision. The players already did a joint team photo with the white cards last April to celebrate the 2017 International Day for Peace and Sport. However, that time they did it as opponents on the ice, having just played against each other in a game at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A in Gangneung.
Even then, to have both teams play each other in Korea and join for a group photo was a historic moment. But it turned out to be just the beginning of a feel-good chapter in the tumultuous history of inter-Korean relations, one that has been marked by division since the Korean War in the ‘50s separated this peninsula and its people.
Although the unified team was announced at the last minute just weeks before the Games, the PyeongChang 2018 organizers were already looking to promote peace during the bidding stage and to include North Korea in one way or another. That initiative dates all the way back to 2001, while working on the first bid for 2010. To the public it didn’t look like that was going to happen until recently, since the political climate was sub-zero at the end of last year.
A New Year’s speech in the north prompted a sudden change, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea eventually warmed up to the idea of sending a delegation to the south. After that, all the details and logistics were arranged at blistering speed in January, including the most ambitious project of all: to not just send individual athletes, officials and a cheerleading group, but also ice hockey players to form a unified Korean team, with players from both north and south working together on the same goal.
This moment was the culmination of plans made long ahead of the Olympics, as IIHF President René Fasel, who spearheaded the idea, revealed today. The plans were ready in a general form and were just waiting for the right political climate to be activated. The details were worked out in a short but intensive process.
“After the PyeongChang 2018 bid had won, we started to think how ice hockey could contribute to their idea of including North Koreans. [During the 2014 Olympic Winter Games] in Sochi we contacted both the South and North Koreans about a unified women’s hockey team. At that time the DPR Korea team was actually stronger than the South Korean team,” Fasel said.
The challenge was that both Koreas had never qualified for the Olympic Winter Games, and giving a wild card to both teams would have been too unfavourable for other teams looking to qualify. “So we thought ‘Why not a unified Korean team?’,” said Fasel, knowing the potential positive signal such a team would send.
A joint men’s team was not really considered due to competitive reasons. Since South Korean clubs have joined their Japanese counterparts to build the Asia League and offer conditions for professional players, they have moved all the way up from the fourth tier to the top tier of the World Championship. The gap is quite high between the 21st-ranked Republic of Korea in the south and the 39th-ranked Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.
It’s different in women’s hockey, where the North Koreans were stronger until the South Koreans decided to focus on improving their women’s hockey program in the lead-up to the Olympics. They played in the same tier in recent years, and 2016 was the first time the South Koreans overtook their northern neighbours in an IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship event.
Fasel also mentions another reason. “Women are a better symbol for peace than men,” he said with a smile.
“It took a lot of work with the involved parties and in particular for the organizers to accommodate the additional delegation that late. But the different Presidents of POCOG [the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games] have always told us it was a great idea and were fully behind it,” Fasel said.
Eventually it was like puzzle pieces coming together one after another. Moon Jae-in was elected as the new President of the Republic of Korea in May 2017, replacing the previous, more conservative government. And a few weeks ago, the signals from the north came for a better dialogue, with the Winter Olympics as a starting point.
Fasel monitored the ups and downs in inter-Korean relations over the years. He not only travelled to the Republic of Korea for various Olympic-related site visits, but also went to DPR Korea twice to talk with the Minister of Sports in Pyongyang.
“The governments were behind us and the political climate changed on both sides and suddenly the decision came. Luckily we also had both teams at the Olympic test event last April,” Fasel said. “It was a mixture of work, circumstance and destiny that everything came together. When the decision came, the package was all set and we just had to work out the details.”
One of these details was what the unified team would look like. Fasel didn’t want any of the 23 South Koreans to come off the roster after years of preparation. After discussions between the governments of the two Koreas, the IIHF Sport Department, and the IOC, it was eventually agreed that 12 North Korean players could be added to the tournament roster, but the game roster would remain at 22 players, as with all other teams.
“The original idea was that if we had enough time, we would have had 23 players on the unified team from the beginning and really give them the time to build a team,” said Fasel. “But given that the go-ahead came at the last moment and we didn’t want to scratch any South Korean players from the roster that late, we went with this structure. In principle, it was against the rules, but the message and the platform we have here for peace was just sensational.” Fasel likewise didn’t know until January that the IIHF could take the idea out of the drawer and make it work out.
Eventually it did work out. The two Korean governments had high-level talks in January. They went to the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland on 20 January to finalize the deal for the Olympic delegation and for the unified women’s ice hockey team. A new jersey was put together in just days, which had to be worked out so the unified Korean team wouldn’t play in the originally-planned Republic of Korea jersey.
Five days later 12 North Korean players, a coach, and other officials crossed the normally impassable border to join their new teammates.
Since the Olympic torch was lit, the team has been a centrepiece of the PyeongChang story, with dignitaries and athletes both inside and outside the Games acknowledging the importance of their presence. The players enjoyed a locker room visit from former Olympic and World Champion Angela Ruggiero, who is an IOC Executive Board member and Chairperson of the IOC Athletes' Commission.
“I told the players not to worry about all the other things outside of what they can control on the ice,” she said. “They are, at the end of the day, an inspiration for many. I just told them to focus on hockey and let everything else figure itself out. I’m sure they know in the back of their heads about the impact they will have outside of their team, in other sports, in the country. That’s what the Olympic movement is all about.”
The unified women’s team was visited by the head of states from both Koreas. Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in sat in the tribune with Fasel and IOC President Thomas Bach for the first game. Nearby was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s formal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, along with Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the country’s leader.
Sport made it possible that for the first time in history, a member of the Kim dynasty entered South Korean territory since the division of Korea.
Before the “white card” event on Saturday, Fasel came to the practice of the Korean team and thanked the players and the coaching staff for their efforts in making history happen despite the challenge of integrating the players very late. Head Coach Sarah Murray accepted a sorry for the “trouble” with a smile.
The political move to have a joint team indeed gave Murray a challenge. She didn’t hide the fact that she understandably would have preferred to start such a project much earlier, rather than getting the players just 16 days before the tournament. But in retrospective, she wouldn’t have wanted to miss out the unique experience and the strong message.
“The chemistry in our team is way better than I could have ever expected. We had two tough games against Switzerland and Sweden and I think in our third game against Japan we finally came together. It’s going better than in the beginning. It was a tough decision in the beginning, but we’re making it work,” Murray said.
The daughter of a famous international Canadian coach, Andy Murray, also has praise for the new arrivals from the north. At least three have to play in each game, according to the agreement.
“I think they’re great. They want to learn, they want to get better. This is a new opportunity to hear a new voice for them. They’re absorbing everything like sponges. They want to know all of our systems, they want to watch videos. It’s really fun teaching them because they want to learn so badly. I think they bring a certain work ethic and edge to the way they practise. They play tough and they practise extremely hard.
“They add that competitive piece to our team for sure and give us a little bit of an edge when we play. It’s tough that not everybody can play, but we tell them that it’s up to them, and if they deserve to play they will play.”
Despite being the outsider at the eight-team Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament, with the South Koreans ranked 22nd and the North Koreans 25th, Murray will later be able to look back at this historic team with pride.
“This thing is going by so fast. I think we’ll just look back, and really enjoy the experience and to get to know these players. This is our team now,” she said.
Behind the bench she got a new assistant coach from DPR Korea in Chol Ho Pak, who played his part in integrating the new players from the north – and in working on a mutual vocabulary. Although the players all speak Korean, there was a certain language barrier. The Koreas have been separated for six decades and the South Koreans use many English-language hockey terms, while the North Koreans combine native Korean words to describe hockey situations.
Looking back, Chol Ho Pak said the games were hard. “But as a unified team we are better. Things are going well right now. Even if we have had a short time to prepare, we’ve tried to do it together and now our performance is improving. If we get more opportunities like that, we will be a strong team in Asia,” Pak said.
When he heard he and the players would go to the Olympics, it was something he hadn’t imagined before. According to Pak, they selected 12 players from the DPR Korea national team based on their performance in the domestic league.
“As soon as we got the news, the players worked really hard back home before they went to South Korea. Of course the division we play in is lower than the Olympics, but we co-operate well together as a unified team to make us stronger. We are trying to do our best in the placement round so we can get great results. We are working as one team. It doesn’t feel like there are big differences. If we can play together, south and north, there’s nothing we can’t do. I hope we get the support to continue as a unified team.”
Somebody who is close with the team is IIHF Life Member Beate Grupp. The former Council member serves in Gangneung as liaison person between the IIHF and the unified Korean team to overcome all possible challenges of this unique project on-site.
“I’m the link between the IIHF and the whole team. I don’t differentiate between north and south. For me it is the Korean team and you don’t really see differences, or that some players are separated or different. The North Koreans may be a bit more reserved and speak less English, but we have a good team management who helps,” said Grupp.
The atmosphere she saw on and off the ice made her feel good. “They are happy young ladies, they have fun, you can hear a lot of laughing. It doesn’t feel much different than other women’s teams,” Grupp said.
Many hope the women’s hockey players will set an example for co-operation and open-mindedness on the Korean peninsula and set a standard for more dialogue and exchange. It recalls the centuries-old folk song Arirang that was selected as the official anthem of the unified team with the Korean peninsula on the jersey, in which lovers separated by a river look to reunite. It evokes the hope of the “We are one!” chants that went through the arena during the games.
“I hope the project will not stop after the tournament and will continue in some way. We can, of course, only help for ice hockey, but I certainly hope the message goes beyond hockey,” Grupp said.