Winter Olympics: Korean ice hockey team may stay united | The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang | DW | 20.02.2018
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Winter Olympics: Korean ice hockey team may stay united

Politics crept into the Olympics when it was announced that there would be a joint Korean women's ice hockey team competing in Pyeongchang. The move was criticized by some, but the spectacle on the ice warmed hearts.

When any sporting side receives a 6-1 thrashing, not to mention a fifth straight loss, a standing ovation is the last scene one expects to take in.

Yet following the conclusion of their five-goal loss to Sweden on Tuesday, Korea's joint women's ice hockey team were given a rousing reception by their adoring fans as they skated around the rink to acknowledge the home fans.

The team has been poor, there's no other way around it. Five games and five losses for a total of 28 goals conceded and just two scored is a pretty devastating record. Failure on the ice, however, has failed to dampen the feel-good story, even if there seems to be a political PR stunt not so far beneath the surface.

South Korea's squad of 23 players had been all set to represent their country at the Olympic ice hockey tournament - a first for the country's women. But just weeks prior to the start of the Pyeongchang Games, government officials decided the two Koreas would combine forces. Twelve North Koreans joined the squad.

The team was to meant symbolize what South Korean President Moon Jae-in was eager to brand as the "peace Olympics", with the two countries also marching under one flag during the opening ceremony.

For South Korea's American-born coach, Sarah Murray (pictured above, left), who has been in charge for four years, it made already challenging preparations that much tougher. But Murray, who through her father, former NHL coach Andy Murray, also holds Canadian citizenship, decribed the team's attitude and commitment as "incredible" after bursting into tears after the final buzzer sounded.

"The politicians made the decision... but our players and our staff are the ones that made it work," Murray told reporters.

"When I was standing there I was just so proud of them just watching them skate around saluting the fans there. With everything that happened to them, prior to the Olympics, for them to come together like this and to compete like this in the Olympics, it's remarkable."

It's a historic moment, no doubt, but the political nature of the unified team didn't sit well with a lot of South Koreans. There were raillies before the one of the team's pretournament exhibition match, also against Sweden, with protesters chanting "Pyongyang Olympics".

They suggested the North had been allowed to hijack the Pyeongchang Games, while many were outraged that the decision deprived a number of South Koreans of the opportunity to represent their nation after years of hard work.

Despite the opposition, however, the love was strong whenever Korea took to the ice. The women became crowd favorites even as their results failed to improve. Bumper crowds attended every match, with an average of almost 4,000 spectators per contest. The total crowd of almost 20,000 was the third-highest among the eight women's teams in Pyeongchang.

The North Korean cheerleading squad even rocked up to the South Korean men's ice hockey game to lend their support.

One International Olympic Committee (IOC) official, Angela Ruggiero, has even suggested the unified Korea team be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

And when Han Soo-jin scored Korea's first goal, in a 4-1 loss to Japan, the puck was sent directly to the International Ice Hockey Federation's (IIHF) hall of fame. The federation's president, Rene Fasel, would like to see the unified team to stick around for the 2022 Beijing Games.

“We are thinking about this, whether we should continue. I say, ‘Why not?'" Fasel said.

"I think that would be good to do it in 2022, to go to the Beijing Olympics, to keep the North and South Korean team," he added. "It is a message of peace and we hope to continue that. We will try."

How that would work in terms of practice sessions, qualifying and other preparations would still have to be worked out and would be closely scrutinized by the already enthralled local media. Such a move would at least prove the politically charged decision was not a mere on-off token gesture.

If the team's chemistry displayed on the ice is anything to go by, a united team could be here to stay.

"I've never imagined our team connecting this well. After our last practice yesterday, we had eight players from the North and five players from our team and they were hugging and taking pictures together," Murray said. "Sports are breaking down the barrier."

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