It started with a gold medal in table tennis

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It started with a gold medal in table tennis


Clockwise from top: The unified Korean women’s ice hockey team competes in a preliminary game at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. The South and North Korean athletes march in together, under the unification flag, during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The unified women’s table tennis team competes at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships. The logo for Tokyo 2020, where the Koreas will compete together in four events, is displayed on a building in Tokyo. [NEWS1, YONHAP, JOONGANG PHOTO]

Last Friday, representatives from South and North Korea told International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach that the two countries will bid to jointly host the 2032 Olympics and field four joint teams at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The two announcements are the culmination of a groundbreaking year of sports diplomacy that began at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics almost exactly one year ago.

The two Koreas agreed to form a joint team in four events - women’s basketball, women’s field hockey, rowing and judo - for the Tokyo Olympics, but this time, they will have to qualify for the event in order to compete.

“The discussions at the working meeting today are one further step showing how sport can once more make a contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world,” Bach was quoted as saying on the IOC website after the meeting. “We have a good foundation to build on and make further progress ahead of the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020.”

If any of the teams do qualify, they’ll be the first inter-Korean teams to compete at the Summer Olympics.

At the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the IOC made a last-minute decision to allow a joint women’s ice hockey team to compete at the Games. The last minute decision was only possible as South Korea earned its berth as the host country. As the decision was made only a month before the Games, the IOC allowed an expanded roster, with 12 North Korean players joining the 23-player South Korean team, with a minimum of three North Koreans to be included in each game’s roster.

Although the unified team lost all three of its preliminary games, the joint team’s performance made headlines around the world as it was the first time the two Koreas had competed together at an Olympics.

Inter-Korean teams have a much longer history, going all the way back to 1991. A unified team competed together at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championship in April and at the FIFA World Youth Championship in July that year.

The table tennis match was particularly sensational. The unified women’s team bested the supposedly “unbeatable” Chinese team and won gold, ending China’s nine-year streak at the World Championship. The moment was even dramatized in the 2012 film “As One.”

Although the men’s team didn’t win, they still advanced to the semifinals.

Following the successful debut in table tennis, the two Koreas made another attempt to compete together that year at the FIFA World Youth Championships. Unlike the table tennis event, where the Koreas asked for permission to add more players to the team, in football the two sides split the roster spots equally.

As the entry was limited to 18 players, each side sent nine players, with the majority of the North Korean players assigned to offensive positions and South Koreans to defense.

The team trained for one week in Pyongyang and one week in Seoul before spending their final two weeks in Portugal where the tournament took place. The unified football team, too, was considered a success as they advanced to the quarterfinals.

At the time, they competed under the Unification Flag and used the traditional folk song ”Arirang” in place of a national anthem.

Although the two international sporting events ended with success, it wasn’t until 2000 that the two Koreas made their next appearance together. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, North and South Korea marched together under the unification flag at the opening and closing ceremony of the Games.

Following Sydney, the Koreas marched together at the 2002 Busan Asian Games, 2003 Aoi-mori Asian Games, 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, but they didn’t compete together as a unified team in any events until 2018.

After the first-ever unified Korean team in women’s ice hockey, the two Koreas formed joint teams at different events throughout the year. The joint teams saw the most success at the 2018 Asian Games, where they finished with one gold, a silver and two bronze, competing as Korea.

But it’s not only in major sporting events that the unified teams left an impression. In July, the two Koreas once again formed a joint team at the 2018 Korea Open and ended with success, winning the mixed doubles titles.

Following their success at the Asian Games, the rowing team is already thinking about unified team preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. The Korean Rowing Association (KRA) is rushing to get started on their training to qualify.

“We need to start training for the worlds at least in March in order to win Olympic quota sports,” a KRA official was quoted as saying on Yonhap. “Before that, we need to confirm the location and schedule for training. It’s true that not only South Korea but also North Korea is behind the world-class level in rowing. We must earn Olympic quota places at the worlds.”

In addition to forming joint teams at next year’s Games, South Korea and North Korea will bid to host the 2032 Games together. Last week, South Korea chose Seoul as its host city for the 2032 bid, while the North chose Pyongyang. The Olympic bidding process typically takes place between seven and eleven years before the Games.

“Sport will continue to build bridges and demonstrate the unifying power of the Olympics Games,” Bach was quoted as saying on IOC. “Therefore, we warmly welcome the historic initiative of the two Koreas to put forward a joint Korean candidature for the Olympic Games 2032.”

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