Two Koreas and politics on ice

When you get right down to it, politics is what animates the Olympics. The nationalism. The unwieldy clashes of divergent cultures, language and statecraft. The bald manipulation of the world’s most visible sporting event to sell a philosophy or legitimacy. The Games are Politics 101.

And that’s why the sudden, unprecedented agreement by the North and South Koreans to field a joint women’s ice hockey team suddenly adds relevance to next month’s otherwise mostly ignored Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Just weeks before the Feb. 9 Opening Ceremonies, it was reported that roughly 65 percent of the Games’ one million tickets remained unsold. Here in the U.S., the lack of buzz over this traditional television hit series long ago raised the question of whether NBC, which paid $4.4 billion for the rights, would take a financial bath.

But now officials in North and South Korea have said their athletes will march together under one flag in the ceremonies—that has happened three times, at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games and 2006 Winter Olympics—and will form a combined team in women’s hockey, which never has happened.

Where such powerful gestures of reconciliation lead isn’t the least bit clear, but certainly worth watching. They finally could thaw relations between the hermit North and economically mighty South, technically still at war 65 years after a signed cease-fire. They could be a long-range North tactic to draw the South into reunification as a means to expel almost 40,000 U.S. troops that have been on the Korean Peninsula since the 1950-53 war.

Either way, they are not about hockey. They are, however, Olympian on several levels. Start with the Olympic ideal of international sisterhood and peace. And, while we need not get carried away with soft violin music in a messy world, a primary message of the Olympics is: Let’s all get together and play games. Modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin, in fact, prioritized the “taking part” over victory.

The way Olympic scholar John MacAloon put it to me once was that the Games are “sports in service of intercultural communication and a better world.” My friend Jay Weiner, who covered a handful of Olympics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, called the Olympics “The U.N. in sneakers.”

I buy those lofty concepts. But with the realization that a central Olympic engine—the flag-waving, medal-counting national affiliations—play right into political schemes and scams.

Furthermore, weaponized links to the homeland often are entirely inappropriate, given the Athletes-Without-Borders reality at the Games. South Korea’s women’s hockey team is a timely example: Because hockey is not a major sport in that nation, its pool of talent is shallow, yet it was guaranteed an automatic berth in the Olympic tournament as the Games’ host nation. So, in preparation for PyeongChang, the South long ago went looking for help outside the country.

The coach, Sarah Murray, is an American-born dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada and former star player at Minnesota-Duluth. (Her father, Andy, is a former NHL coach.) Two Canadians and two Americans, all with Korean roots, are on South Korea’s 23-player roster. (Not an unusual situation. Of the 3,000 athletes in the 2014 Sochi Games, 120 represented a country other than their birth nation.)

Among the tricky parts now, though, is how Murray can integrate North Korean players into the South’s playing style and line rotations. And what the International Olympic Committee will do about expanding the roster beyond the 22 allowed in uniform for games. And how much protest there might be from displaced South Korean players and opposing teams. (The Swiss, South Korea’s scheduled opponent in their first Olympic match on Feb. 10, reportedly have said it is unfair to allow the South-North team extra personnel.)

In the end, though, all of this is decidedly Olympian. In MacAloon’s words, “That’s why the Games are interesting. They’re life itself. They mirror not just a dream version of life, they also mirror the things we struggle with.”

The whole deal fits, too, into the Korean cultural principle that order and harmony are forged from opposites. Perception is both vertical and horizontal, rough and smooth, dark and light, mountain and plain.

The Olympics is peace and war. But without the bullets.

Let the Games begin.

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