After days of rumour and speculation, the International Olympic Committee, in tandem with the International Ice Hockey Federation, today confirmed that the Korean Olympic women’s hockey team will feature players from both Koreas at the upcoming PyeongChang Games.
The IOC confirmed that the historic unified team will gain a special exemption to expand to a 35 player roster, with 12 to be named North Korean players added to the existing 23 player roster from the South. However, only 22 players will be allowed to play per game, with a minimum three North Koreans on the roster for each game. The team will still be coached by South Korean head coach Sarah Murray, who will make the decision on the North players to participate in each game. The 12 North players will be submitted to the IOC and IIHF for approval shortly, and should be confirmed soon.
The historic implications of this team are paramount, with the Koreas technically still at war since an armistice was reached during the Korean War in 1953. In the context of sport, only twice have the Koreas fielded a unified team for any organized event, both far smaller in scale compared to the Olympics, and the only other Games held in South Korea, the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, saw the North boycott the event altogether. For two nations that seldom even speak to each other in political settings, especially in a heated political climate around the Korean Peninsula, the fact that not only the North will attend the PyeongChang Games, but even to walk under a unified flag and team up in a sport like hockey, has tremendous ramifications.
However, there has been skepticism over the idea of fairness with this idea, coming so close to the Games beginning, as now the South Korean players will be the ones forced to sacrifice their playing time in front of their home country, and while the cause is certainly a noble one of great importance, it comes at the expense of the South players, who now have to not only cut back on their playing time, but adapt their system to play with these new teammates. Other women’s teams, such as the Swiss, have also raised concerns about an expanded 35-player roster, which will allow Korea to easily navigate player fatigue or injury in ways that other teams cannot.
While South Korea, who qualified as the host nation automatically, was not expected to make much of an impact in the medal standings, the concerns are outweighed here by the grand gesture of a unified team coming together on the biggest stage in sports. The Olympics, while there has also been a long history of politicization and controversial issues, have also had the power to unite political enemies, with on-ice unified teams from Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union all putting aside their differences on the ice. These upcoming games will perhaps mark the most historic and symbolic unification so far in the history of the Games, and will hopefully have the power to impact real change off the ice as well.