North and South Korean Athletes Unify on the Ice for Women’s Hockey Team

North and South Korean Athletes Unify on the Ice for Women’s Hockey Team

John Autey/Associated Press

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They decided to tape over the flags when the North Koreans joined. The news shocked them as much as anyone else, but it quickly became their day-to-day reality.

The North Koreans were going to be arriving the next day to join their Olympic hockey team, and while the news was unexpected, the South Korean women needed to make every effort to help the North Koreans know they were in this together.

The gear, of course, had already come in weeks before, the country’s white, red and blue flag sewn into everything from their jackets to their gloves. They needed to cover it up because the flag didn’t represent their team anymore.

“We couldn’t be brandishing South Korean flags anymore,” forward Caroline Park said. “That’s one thing we wanted to do to make sure everyone feels we’re unified. Trying to be as inclusive as possible, covering up that flag.”

The DIY-ness of it all—the last-minute duct tape covering the flags on their gloves, the unified flag patches added to the team’s gear—mirrored the job that suddenly faced Korea head coach Sarah Murray. The 29-year-old Canadian now had to achieve, on the ice at least, a task world diplomats haven’t been able to achieve for more than 60 years: unite the North and South on the Korean peninsula. With less than a month before the games kicked off, Murray needed to integrate 12 North Koreans into a team that already included 23 South Koreans.

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

Murray expressed trepidation about it from the beginning, telling reporters she had “mixed feelings” about the unified team.

There were so many unanswered questions. How good would the players be? How quickly would they be able to adjust to the South Koreans’ playing style? How many could keep up?

There were obviously the potential political motivations of the North Korean organizers, that joining the two teams would gain unearned goodwill for a dictatorship known for its human rights atrocities, that acknowledging the positive foot put forward by Kim Jong Un would only further enable a charm offensive.

All of that was on top of the challenges Murray knew would come up without notice. Worst-case scenario, she thought, the two teams would be a false symbol of unity, not talking to each other or spending real time together. She worried the combined countries would be more cosmetic symbol than actual team. T

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