Player or Pawn? Women's Hockey, the Olympics and the Korean Dynamic

By Stevens, Julie; Professor, Associate et al. | The Canadian Press, February 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Player or Pawn? Women's Hockey, the Olympics and the Korean Dynamic


Stevens, Julie, Professor, Associate, and, Sport Management, Centre, University, Brock, The Canadian Press


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

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Julie Stevens, Associate Professor, Sport Management and Director, Centre for Sport Capacity, Brock University

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.

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. …

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