Player or pawn? Women’s hockey, the Olympics and the Korean dynamic

South Korea’s goalie Shin So-jung reacts after giving up a goal to Switzerland in the first game played by the combined Koreas women’s hockey team the 2018 Winter Olympics. Korea lost its opening game 8-0. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Player or pawn? Women’s hockey, the Olympics and the Korean dynamic

Will using the Olympic women’s hockey competition as a stage for international politics help or hinder the female game?

That’s the first question that came to mind when I heard the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved a unified South Korea-North Korea women’s hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Pyeongchang marks the 20th anniversary of women’s hockey at the Olympics. During these past two decades, criticism has been levelled about the Canada-United States domination. Lopsided scores during the 2010 Vancouver Games prompted IOC President Jacques Rogge to insist that women’s hockey must improve for the Olympic program to continue.

A new format adopted for 2014 in Russia led to more even scores, and while Canada and the United States remained on top of the podium, Switzerland beat Finland to earn its first Olympic medal — a bronze.

Given all this, the move to a joint South Korea-North Korea team, which could weaken the host’s performance, seems to counter the female game’s steady climb towards parity among the women’s hockey teams at the Olympics. It’s therefore important to consider two perspectives when examining this issue.

The individual perspective

First, there is the individual viewpoint that considers how the athletes and team staff from both South and North Korea, and other national women’s teams that are part of the Olympic competition, see the IOC decision.

Each South Korean player earned her place on the Olympic team. It seemed like South Korean head coach, Canadian Sarah Murray, and players were caught off guard by the decision and alarmed that the late decision could hurt team morale.

While the Olympic host country is currently ranked 22nd by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), South Korea’s best female hockey players may use the experience as a springboard to develop the female game in their country and Asia as a whole. But to accomplish that goal, they need to play well rather than be distracted because they lost their spot in the starting lineup. The joint team roster will include 35 players but only 22 can dress for each game.

Hayley Wickenheiser is seen here in a 2017 photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

This was the point Hailey Wickenheiser, a summer and winter Olympian and all-time leading scorer for the Canadian women’s national team, raised when she voiced concern about the IOC decision.

As an elected member of the IOC’s Athlete Commission, it’s Wickenheiser’s responsibility to speak on behalf of Olympic athletes. She did so by asking what impact the IOC’s last-minute decision would have on the South Korean women’s team and why the men’s team wasn’t subjected to the same ruling.

A similar sentiment was expressed by South Koreans who signed a petition calling for the reversal of the decision by the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to enter a joint South Korea-North Korea women’s hockey team.

The international perspective

There’s also the international viewpoint that weighs the high stakes of global sport and politics.

Hockey has played a central role in sport diplomacy over the past 60 years, but rarely has women’s hockey been at centre stage. Several observers have noted that men’s hockey, however, has been employed as a tool for domestic nation-building and international superiority, such as the promotion of hockey for Canadian identity purposes by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, past Canadian-American ties and Cold War-era, East-versus-West relations, both Canada-U.S.S.R. or U.S.-U.S.S.R..

In the 2014 book Coming Down The Mountain, a colleague and I noted that while the international hockey spectacles generated by hockey diplomacy fuelled a great deal of change in men’s international hockey, the strategy hasn’t done much for the women’s game.

North Korean supporters cheer before the preliminary round of the women’s hockey game between Switzerland and the combined Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

South Korea and North Korea have experienced tensions for several decades. Reports indicate that high-level inter-Korean talks were held to discuss the joint women’s team and ultimately work out details on how to integrate the 35-player unified roster. Indeed, past research has found international sport can be a forum where athletes are enlisted as ideological soldiers in Communism-versus-capitalism battles.

It appears that because the Olympic host country is not expected to challenge for a medal, the stakes are low enough that a joint Korean women’s hockey team could serve the role of “peace champion.” In so doing, the IOC and IIHF are able to highlight the importance of the Olympic ideals of promoting peace.

Does the decision help or hurt women’s hockey?

So, as an expert on women’s hockey, where do I stand on the joint Korean hockey team?

Based upon these two perspectives, and research I have conducted over many years, I believe the decision will help the game.

That’s because it offers an opportunity to build a sense of community that has always been central to female hockey.

I explored this theme in an article on community in Canadian women’s hockey in which I noted that as women’s hockey evolved from grassroots to international levels, it experienced a shift from collectivism and collegiality towards individuality and elitism.

I argued such change was detrimental to the female game. But the combined Korean team may provide the context for a return to collective thinking as a key part to building female hockey.

The IOC decision also offers an opportunity to build legitimacy for the female game.

No matter what the country or level of competition, women’s and girls’ hockey have suffered an inferiority complex. At the 2016 World Hockey Forum, an IIHF event hosted by the Russian Hockey Federation in Moscow, I argued that women’s and girls’ hockey will only gain global acceptance when key organizations like the IIHF and national hockey federations intentionally and strategically promote the female game.

Canadian Sarah Murray, the South Korean women’s hockey team head coach, speaks to the media in South Korea in January. (Ha Sa-hun/Yonhap via AP)

And so by selecting women’s hockey to make a point about global tensions and symbolic unification, the IOC, the IIHF and each Korean government have essentially signalled that women’s hockey is a legitimate sport on the world stage.

The decision also affords an opportunity to expand women’s hockey through cultural as opposed to political means.

In an upcoming book, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, I claim that cultural diplomacy, not political diplomacy, has helped to successfully establish a sustainable, global female game.

There’s no doubt that nation-to-nation competition is serious business. But it will take a collective worldwide effort among women’s hockey leaders from all countries to create change within the male-dominated institutional hockey system.

What’s more, the joint Korean team is getting media attention that will consequently build awareness of women’s hockey.

Twenty years ago, I co-authored Too Many Men on The Ice: Women’s Hockey in North America, a book published on the eve of the first women’s Olympic competition in Nagano, Japan.

A key theme of the book was the need to build awareness, since women’s hockey demonstrably thrives when it gets positive media exposure. But a 2012 research article claimed media exposure demonstrates an ongoing ambivalence that continues to marginalize the female game, even at the international level.

The media spotlight being shone on women’s hockey in Pyeongchang, however, is certainly much brighter and more positive than previous Olympics, and the event has yet to begin.

At the end of the day, powerful international sports organizations like the IOC and IIHF call the shots when it comes to women’s hockey.

Female hockey stakeholders, including players, coaches and leaders within national, regional and local hockey associations, may not have much influence over such high-level decisions like the IOC’s.

But they do have influence over how the impact of those decisions may be leveraged, over time, to advance the female game within their country as well as around the world.

As a colleague and I argue, governance changes at the grassroots level is the catalyst that drives girls’ hockey participation throughout the whole female hockey system.

On Feb. 25, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games will come to an end, but women’s teams and programs in South Korea and North Korea will continue to exist. Let’s hope the momentum from the Olympic competition will ensure the female game, in the two Koreas and around the world, will drive further growth.

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