Building bridges: How sport is bringing North and South Korea closer together | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 14.02.2019
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Building bridges: How sport is bringing North and South Korea closer together

On Friday, representatives of North and South Korea are to brief the IOC president on plans for their joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics. The ice between the two Korean states is slowly melting – thanks to sport.

"In a fragile world, you have shown that sport can bring people together. You have shown that sport can build bridges," Thomas Bach told the athletes of North and South Korea at the Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Pyeongchang last February.

Building bridges through sport – it's one of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president's favorite analogies. A year on from Pyeongchang, the 65-year-old German has promised that sport will continue to support the peace process on the Korean peninsula, repeating his belief that "sport must build bridges and show how it can bring people together."

On Friday, Bach is to meet with representatives from both North and South Korea at the IOC's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, for a progress report on the two countries' joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Games. And it doesn't take a fortune teller to guess which words he'll use to describe the meeting. And he'll be right to do so.

2018 Winter Olympic Games - Eröffnungsfeier mit Unitd Korea Flagge (Getty Images/M. Meyer)

Athletes from the two Koreas marched into the Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang under one flag

'A snowman of peace'

Sport is regularly burdened with social and political meaning and often collapses under the expectations. But in the case of Korea, it really has managed to build bridges – or, to use a different analogy for a change, to break the ice.

Without the participation of North Korea at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which the IOC actively encouraged, the gradual détente between the two Korean states would not have been possible, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Bach at a meeting in October.

Earlier this month, on the one-year anniversary of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, Moon furthered the metaphor, saying: "The little snowball which we set in motion together has today grown into a snowman of peace."

Three summits since Pyeongchang

At that opening ceremony  North and South Koreans entered the stadium under a neutral flag. In the women's hockey tournament, a joint Korean team took to the ice. Politically, the Games were like a starting gun. Since then, there have been three more meetings between the two heads of state – Moon from the South, Kim Jong-un from the North.

Bildergalerie Jahresrückblick 2018 (Reuters/Korea Summit Press Pool)

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in met in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in April of last year

Each time, sport played a role. At the third summit in September, Moon and Kim agreed to prepare a joint Korean bid for 2032. Something that would have sounded like a marketing gag one-and-a-half years ago now looks like a realistic aim.

United in the semifinal

A few days after Moon and Kim had agreed in principle to a declaration of peace at their first summit on 27 April 2018, the two countries' teams at the women's table tennis world championships agreed to call off their quarterfinal match and send a joint Korean side into the semifinal instead – a sporting-political bombshell. The fact that the Koreans then lost 3-0 to Japan and only won bronze was irrelevant; the political act was what counted.

In the same boat

At the Asian Games in Jakarta, last August joint Korean teams competed in dragon boat racing, rowing and basketball. They even won a medal – seven South Koreans and five North Koreans sat in the same dragon boat in the women's competition and took bronze behind China and the hosts, Indonesia.

Indonesien Asiatische Spiele - Drachenboot (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Kim Ju-hyung)

A team of North and South Korean women won bronze in the dragon boat race

Five games, five defeats

Most recently, at this year's World Handball Championship in Germany and Denmark, a joint Korean team took to the floor in the opening fixture in Berlin. A 30-19 loss to Germany was followed by four more defeats and an expected group-stage exit but, once again, it was the political message that really mattered, not the sporting result.

Also present in Berlin that day to witness the first joint-Korean world championship appearance: IOC boss Bach, who said the combined team was a "fantastic symbol."

"Sport can't solve political disputes," he continued – but you'll never guess what he said it can do…

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