For the first time in their nations’ histories, North and South Korea will field a joint women’s ice hockey team in the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics. The countries have walked under a unified flag together in the 2000, 2004, and 2006 Olympics, however competing as a single team in a sport has never happened, especially given the tense relations between the two countries.
The Korean aren’t the first to use sports as the mediator of a conflict. It can draw people away from war and conflicts through a unified means, and the decline of warfare in recent centuries could very well be attributed to the rise in the availability of sports. In the 1500s through even the mid 1900s, the average person’s life was fairly boring on a daily basis. Wars, and especially the periods directly following wars, saw a constant positive psychological presence among the civilians whose nations were fighting. The average farmer could come home to exciting news, whether it was positive or negative was irrelevant to the buildup of excitement he witnessed while farming during the day. The same can be said regarding an average office worker today waiting to watch the Mets game when he gets home. In the essay The Moral Equivalent of War by William James in 1910, James explains people seek a refreshing and positive break from the everyday monotony, and sports provides just this minus the total destruction war brings.
In 1914, in the middle of the trenches during World War I, German, Scottish, and French soldiers took a break from slaughtering each other to celebrate Christmas, relax, and even play a game of soccer together. Known as the “Christmas Truce,” by historians, this instance proved the power sports (and Christmas) had on creating unity amongst enemies. After playing in a game of pickup soccer with each other, the soldiers refused to shoot at their newly made friends the next day because they humanized their enemies in a way rarely ever seen in wars.
By joining forces for the first time ever at the Olympics, the unified Korean women’s hockey team certainly won’t create a unified world peace suddenly, but it’s a step in the right direction never seen before by two countries who are currently pointing weapons at each other. The Olympics is successful, however, in consistently bringing people together unlike any other sports events. National pride, appreciation of athlete’s talents, and newfound hope are alway at all-time highs during the Olympics. In a time where conflict has become the norm, between political parties, powerful countries, and even the contempt between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Olympics are an optimistically reliable source of escape for everyone. When Russell and KD last played each other, the pair yelled, shoved, and both received technicals. On the same team in the 2017 All Star Game, however, they put aside their anger for each other and played with the team in mind.
The Olympics actually has a council with the sole purpose of creating peace amongst nations through sports – the Olympic Truce Foundation. The Olympic Committee has also consistently barred nations at war from competing in Olympics, such as the Central Powers following World War I (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Hungary), or even for practicing segregation (South Africa was banned from the 1992 Olympics). Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, stated the goal of the Olympics was, “to build a peaceful and better world thanks to sport, through solidarity, team spirit, joy and optimism. To consider sport as a tool for mutual understanding among individuals and people from all over the world, despite the differences.”
Now, not every attempt at unity through sports is successful. The 2014 Olympics have seemingly had no impact on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. In 2010, members of the Togo national soccer team were attacked by terrorists in Angola during the African Cup of Nations tournament as well. Perhaps it comes down to understanding the current relationship between countries, the setting of the events, and the characters of the athletes playing. The women of the North and South Korea joint hockey team are playing for more than just a medal however. Their team, their countries, and their chance for unity, or at least improved relations, rests on their shoulders at the moment. Hopefully this is the right time, method, and place for such an attempt at diplomacy.