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  Issue Date: 3 / 2018  

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

Julie Stevens

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

       Will using the Olympic womenís hockey competition as a stage for international politics help or hinder the female game?
       Thatís the first question that came to mind when I heard the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved a unified South Korea-North Korea womenís hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
       Pyeongchang marks the 20th anniversary of womenís 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 womenís 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 ó a bronze.
       Given all this, the move to a joint South Korea-North Korea team, which could weaken the hostís performance, seems to counter the female gameís steady climb towards parity among the womenís hockey teams at the Olympics. Itís 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 womenís 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 Koreaís 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 womenís national team, raised when she voiced concern about the IOC decision.
       As an elected member of the IOCís Athlete Commission, itís Wickenheiserís responsibility to speak on behalf of Olympic athletes. She did so by asking what impact the IOCís last-minute decision would have on the South Korean womenís team and why the menís team wasnít 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 countryís Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to enter a joint South Korea-North Korea womenís hockey team.
       The international perspective
       Thereís 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 womenís hockey been at centre stage. Several observers have noted that menís 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 menís international hockey, the strategy hasnít done much for the womenís game.
       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 womenís 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 womenís hockey team could serve the role of ďpeace champion.Ē 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 womenís hockey?
       So, as an expert on womenís 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.
       Thatís 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 womenís hockey in which I noted that as womenís 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, womenís and girlsí 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 womenís and girlsí hockey will only gain global acceptance when key organizations like the IIHF and national hockey federations intentionally and strategically promote the female game.
       And so by selecting womenís hockey to make a point about global tensions and symbolic unification, the IOC, the IIHF and each Korean government have essentially signalled that womenís hockey is a legitimate sport on the world stage.
       The decision also affords an opportunity to expand womenís hockey through cultural as opposed to political means.
       In an upcoming book, Hockey: Challenging Canadaís Game, I claim that cultural diplomacy, not political diplomacy, has helped to successfully establish a sustainable, global female game.
       Thereís no doubt that nation-to-nation competition is serious business. But it will take a collective worldwide effort among womenís hockey leaders from all countries to create change within the male-dominated institutional hockey system.
       Whatís more, the joint Korean team is getting media attention that will consequently build awareness of womenís hockey.
       Twenty years ago, I co-authored Too Many Men on The Ice: Womenís Hockey in North America, a book published on the eve of the first womenís Olympic competition in Nagano, Japan.
       A key theme of the book was the need to build awareness, since womenís 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 womenís 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 womenís 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 IOCís.
       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 girlsí hockey participation throughout the whole female hockey system.
       On Feb. 25, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games will come to an end, but womenís teams and programs in South Korea and North Korea will continue to exist. Letís hope the momentum from the Olympic competition will ensure the female game, in the two Koreas and around the world, will drive further growth.
       Copyright The Conversation, 2018

Associate Professor, Sport Management and Director, Centre for Sport Capacity, Brock University
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