Olympic Spirit: The story of Korea’s unified ice hockey team at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics

In 2018, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea made history by entering a unified team into the women's ice hockey competition at the Olympic Games. Today, that team's legacy lives on.

By Virgilio Neto

Politically separated, the Koreas - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) - have competed in international competitions under different flags for years. However, there are rare occasions when the nations parade or even compete as a unified team under a common flag.

The Koreas aren't the first set of countries to have done this. The once-divided East and West Germany competed together between 1952 and 1964. Egypt and Syria, as the United Arab Republic, competed at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics.

The Koreas first paraded together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, but competed separately. They did this again in 2004 in Athens and 2006 in Turin, before finally making history at PyeongChang 2018.

The two Koreas parade together at the PyeongChang 2018 Opening Ceremony. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Diplomacy and delegations

A few months before the 2018 Winter Olympics were due to kick off in PyeongChang, the political situation on the Korean peninsula was very tense, with some questioning whether North Korean athletes would even participate at the Games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was keen for North Korean athletes to participate at the 2018 Winter Olympics, offering to support them with equipment, accommodation, and travel to qualification events.

Thankfully, after years of dialogue between all parties concerned, it was announced that athletes from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would indeed compete in PyeongChang, and in January of 2018, more good news came: The Republic of Korea's women's national ice hockey team, who had already qualified for the Olympic tournament as hosts, would be amalgamated with three players from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to form a single Korea women's national ice hockey team. This was the first time in Olympic history that both nations would compete as a unified team under one flag.

“There were moments of tension until the last moment. Nobody knew what was going to happen. When everything went well, it was a relief and we thought: well, the Games can start ”.

Olivier Niamey, member of the International Olympic Committee

Cheerleaders hold the Unified Korea flag following a game between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

Competing at the Games

Altogether 22 athletes from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea participated at PyeongChang 2018, with 12 joining the aforementioned ice hockey team.

Randi Griffin, who competed on the team as a member of the Republic of Korea, recalls meeting her new teammates for the first time: "When we first met, it felt like the first day of school."

The team faced their fair share of challenges, even before a puck had been dropped. Though both Korea's share a similar language, the difference in dialect and accent is strong, meaning communication could sometimes prove to be challenging - not to mention the fact that the team was coached by American Sarah Murray!

But despite the language barrier, the team was able to come together and work as a cohesive unit on the ice at the Games.

Fans cheering for the players of the unified Korean team. (Photo by Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)
Picture by 2016 Kyodo News

Even though Korea may have finished at the bottom of the standings in the women's ice hockey tournament at PyeongChang, the team's mere presence captivated a global audience, and engrossed a packed house at the Gangneung and Kwandong Hockey Centres, who showered the squad with chants of "We are one!" whenever they took to the ice - proof that sport and the Olympics have the power to bring people from divided communities together, even if only for a brief moment in time.

IOC President Thomas Bach encourage the Unified Korea team players after the women's preliminary round ice hockey match between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

Reflecting on the impact of the unified Korean team

"The UN General Assembly has already taken Olympic peace resolutions in the past, but none of them in the Organization's history has been more important than this time, in 2017".

- Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

“Sporting events have a huge impact on public opinion, and public opinion has a huge impact on politics, so there can certainly be this connection and that something like that can change the hearts and minds of South Korean, North Korean people, and that would also have an impact on geopolitics.”

- Randi Griffin, a member of the 2018 unified ice hockey team.

“It shows that we are people and that we can come together through ice hockey”.

- Danelle Im, a member of the 2018 unified ice hockey team.

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