The following story is based on the hardest challenge of the just finished PyeongChang Games: the partecipation of the unified Korean female hockey team into the Olympics Games.
Before the beginning of the event, the Olympic Committees has declared the most ambitious purpose to reach during these 16 days of sport by rediscovering the ancient values of the Olympic movement and reminding our competitive world how to behave: “Sport cannot lead the policy in the political area, but we are aiming for a Peace Olympic Games,” declared Lee Hee-beom, the president of the 2018 PyeongChang organizing committee, before these Olympics.
Certainly this has been a fitting place to the hopeful feat realized by the 29-years-old Sarah Murray, Korean female hockey team’s coach since late 2014, and her squad, composed by players from both Koreas.
Despite the young age, Sarah Murray was a star player at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who was able to lead her team to two national titles. It was through her father, Andy Murray, a former coach and player of the National Hockey League, that Sarah met Jim Paek, the first Korean-born hockey player of the NHL and the coach of South Korea’s national team on the men’s side. Searching for a women’s coach, Paek was intrigued by Murray’s hockey credentials and he offered her the opportunity to become the new coach the national team of South Korea, with an eye toward the Winter Olympics.
However, the following events would have been totally unexpected: on January 2018, indeed Murray discovered that North Korean players would be incorporated into her team, less than a month before next week’s Opening Ceremony.
“I am kind of shocked this happened so close to the Olympics,” she told reporters. “When rumors were going around about this happening, I didn’t really believe it.” Many in the hockey team and general South Korean public were also unhappy with the decision.
There were several problems to deal in this situation: at first, Murray had to manage the morale of South Korean players, she must also put in effort to learn about the new players, many of whom grew up being taught that Americans are evil. Murray also told the New York Times last year that communication was the biggest obstacle, as she coaches through a translator. Then North Korean players use different game terminology than players in the South, a result of the two sides having been separated for decades and evolving in separate ways.
Although the increasing difficulties Murray said that she hoped to be able to “shock people” with the Korean team’s performance. In some ways, actually she was able to surprise people with the Korean women’s team rising six spots in world rankings under her guidance: indeed, the unified Koreans lost all five games. However, they gave the large, spirited and curious crowds something to appreciate.
“When I was put in charge of a unified team that was decided upon as a political statement just ahead of the Olympics, I didn’t know how I was going to unite the team,” Murray said. “But I treated the South and North Korean players equally, and the players were totally committed. The players were the real heroes.”
She has been asked to dedicate at least two more years to improving the Korean hockey program. She has agreed to stay, but this team won’t remain intact. There were no victories, but as they entertained, leaders from South and North Korea seemed to improve their frigid relations. It’s hard to know whether you can trust it to last. Still, the effort was a positive step.
“Our games weren’t a political statement to us,” Murray said. “They were just games.”
That’s the magic of sports: Murray had to overcome more obstacles than most coaches could ever expect to face, by trying, in spite of the hard political relation, to join this group of people not only under the same flag but also the same teamwork spirit. And then, by simply being themselves, the Korean female hockey players have reached the point making the Peace Olympics turn into more than a naive theme.
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