Communication is keyWhen I learned about the joint women’s ice hockey team for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, I was reminded of the single table tennis team that competed as “Korea” 27 years ago. At the World Table Tennis Championship in Chiba, Japan, in 1991, I played with North Korea’s Li Pun-hui in women’s doubles and won the gold medal for the women’s team.
The players in the table tennis team first learned that we would be in a unified team with North Korea for the World Championship from media reports. Coaching staff told us that we would play as a single team, and players received training from the Agency for National Security Planning before flying off. Only a month before the event, I wondered why the joint team was formed and doubted whether it would work.
However, training went more smoothly than expected. We knew about each other and needed each other. As soon as we met, a North Korean official said, “You have to do well.” They already knew about me. In short, North Korea needed Hyun Jung-hwa and South Korea needed Li Pun-hui. The coaches of South and North Korea had a belief that the two needed each other and would do better when united.
Our goal was defeating China. But we knew the limits of the skills of the South and North Korean players. When competing separately, defeating China was not easy. But when South and North Korean players met, we had synergy. Players became more confident. Team Korea beat China and won the gold medal. We embraced at the end. It was the power of Korea. The joint table tennis team moved people deeply.
However, the joint women’s hockey team led to more controversies instead of touching people’s hearts. Having experienced the overwhelming moment, I have consistently advocated the need for a unified team for a long time. But the process of forming a joint team was problematic.
It takes time, and communication with the athletes is important. For the unified table tennis team, the players were kept in the dark, but the association and the authorities had prior communication, and the coaching staff persuaded the players. Athletes were surprised, but adding North Korean players reinforced the team’s strength.
For the women’s ice hockey team, everybody found out at the same time. Less than a month before the Winter Olympics, the single team was pushed together without sufficient communication. They seem to feel that they were demanded to sacrifice for a purpose other than sports. As they have little knowledge of the North Korean players, there is no guarantee that the team would become stronger.
Some players were hurt by officials’ remarks that our team is certainly not among the medal hopefuls. It would have been different if they were told, “We understand the problems some players have, but we need to look at a bigger picture. The government will also help the development of ice hockey.” All players work toward the goal of medals, and only a few get to win one. But regardless of the result, all efforts to win medals are valued in sports. It could be hard for the players to be told that they were not likely to win medals.
Now that a unified team has been agreed upon, the team should focus their energy on how best to play the games. The remaining two weeks may seem short, but it is never a short time to work together and prepare. South and North Korean players should display consideration, concession and communication for better harmony.
If necessary, South Korean members should yield more so that their consideration can convince and change North Koreans and have a positive impact on overall performance. Communication and agreement may not have been sufficient when creating the team, but communication and consideration are necessary in training and competing. As the role of the head coach is very important, she should be given maximum autonomy.
The government should not just consider the unified team as some sort of an event but continue to offer support for women’s ice hockey. Some members are playing hard despite financial difficulties. The players would be hurt more if the women’s ice hockey team is needed for the unified team but gets little attention after the Olympics. Hopefully, the social attention on the sport thanks to the joint team will lead to policy support from the government and stable development.
As national team members, it is their destiny to respond to the call of the nation. Sports have always played the role of opening the door between South and North Korea. While the politically inspired approach caused a rough start for the joint team, the women’s ice hockey players will hopefully show the true power of sports with good performance.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 27, Page 25
*The author is the head coach of Let’s Run Table Tennis Club.