Unified Korean team takes to the ice
Beaten 8-0 by Switzerland
Game dubbed "Hallmark" moment
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Rarely does sport become secondary on one of the grandest sporting stages of all. Seldom is history made without a medal won or a record broken. But on the Winter Olympics’ first day came a match without compare – not that anyone will remember the score or what happened on the ice.
On another bone-chilling evening in Gangneung, a city on the east coast of South Korea, a unified Korean ice hockey team made its Olympic debut and in comprehensive defeat sent a message to the world that winning is not always the be all and end all.
“It was a great lesson for my children,” public servant Park Young-sun told CNN. “They learned that winning isn’t everything and you can get more cheers for trying to overcome differences.”
This 60-minute match was always going to be significant no matter what the result.
After all, it was not for sporting reasons that this group of 35 women were hastily put together.
Ever since it was announced last month that North and South Korea, still technically at war, would unite on the ice, this women’s team became a tool for rapprochement.
Their first outing of the Games, against Switzerland – though the opposition seemed inconsequential – had captured the imagination and, unsurprisingly, wooed journalists from all over the world to the Kwandong Hockey Centre. Though this was sport, the political message resonated louder than any fan’s roar.
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Before the match commenced, photographers in the media room were reminded of the importance of the occasion, of the stature of the dignitaries present and were told to retain their equanimity despite the stressful hours ahead.
Outside, on an evening cold enough to freeze breath, South Koreans of all generations gaily waved flags of a unified Korean peninsula. Miniature versions of that carried by North Korean ice hockey player Chung Gum Hwang and South Korean bobsledder Won Yun-jong during the moving opening ceremony the day before.
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After a year of escalating hostility over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program, this Olympics has given the two countries reason to talk again, but not even the wildest optimist could have predicted recent events.
Only hours before the team took to the ice, South Korean president Moon Jae-in received a formal invitation from the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, to travel across the border for a meeting which would, were it to happen, be a first between Korean leaders since 2007.
Following the historic meeting at Seoul’s presidential palace, the South Korean president, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty to set foot in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war, traveled north to watch another significant moment in their countries’ history.
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After the match, they exchanged words with the unified team after the match and posed with the team for another in a now long list of noteworthy photographs captured at the Games.
The result of this opening game – an 8-0 drubbing – mattered little. No-one expected this combined team to achieve anything on the ice.
There have been communication difficulties between the players – a three-page dictionary was produced to help ease the linguistic differences between those from the north and south – while there has been some opposition to the team’s formation with some feeling that South Koreans had been forfeited to make way for the 12 North Korean players who had to be added.
Such criticisms decreased as the Olympics neared, and there was little evidence of such backlash inside the arena on Saturday.
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As he made his way to the stadium with his family, his young son waving the now familiar flag of a united Korean peninsula, Jung Jin-suk, from Suwon in the north west, said he hoped the unified team could help improve the South’s understanding of the North.
“Many people are excited,” he told CNN Sport. “Maybe 99% of the people will be happy, but 1% aren’t because they have bad memory about the Korean War. After this event, I hope that many South Korean people can understand North Korea better.”
Sun Kim-Eun echoed this message of hope. Indeed, it is hope and peace which have been the opening narrative of these Games.
“This match is historic, it’s very meaningful for Korea. We’re happy,” he said.
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Though the arena was far from full, Koreans from North and South at times created a racket, though few inside could match the relentless enthusiasm of North Korea’s cheering squad, a traveling troupe of 230 young women who have already made an impression at PyeongChang 2018.
Weirdly mesmerizing, they were more absorbing than the match itself. Photographers focused their lenses on the women in red nearly as much as the history-makers on the ice dressed in white with the Korean peninsula on their jerseys.
The cheering squad conducted Mexican waves, always accompanied by peculiar high-pitched warbles, though hardly anyone else in the arena participated.
There were chants, a burst of traditional song and even a strange occasion when each cheerleader donned masks.
They brought a glow of color to the occasion and, even when their team was down and out, which was as early as the first quarter, the squad continued to fill the arena with noise.
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Theirs was a visual message, a noisy one, too. But though it was the North Koreans who shouted the loudest in support of this new team, there have been benefits to both countries.
“The joint ice hockey team is something where they both derive a certain degree of good publicity even if they don’t win any medals,” Michael Madden, Visiting Scholar of the US-Korea Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, told CNN Sport.
“The North isn’t getting any money for this. Even if they don’t win anything there aren’t going to be any hard feelings about that.
“North Korea does not regard themselves as a great ice hockey powerhouse. It’s not a huge sport out there, they’re just happy to be part of the team.
“All the South Korean public are going to need is one or two moments, what we’d call a Hallmark moment, with the two Koreas and it’s going to dispel a lot of the negative feelings and negative tension the North has gotten because they’re participating.”
Additional reporting by Taehoon Lee