Will N.Korean Players Hobble S.Korea's Women's Ice Hockey Team?

  • By Kang Ho-chul

    January 19, 2018 12:34

    An inter-Korean women's ice hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang will include all 23 South Korean players plus extra North Korean ones, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Do Jong-whan told the National Assembly on Monday.

    Some five to eight North Korean players are expected to join the team. The government says the South Korean athletes will not suffer any disadvantages, but some will have to sit out the Olympic matches since any match can only have 22 players on each side and adding new ones reduces playing time on rotation.

    Fans are complaining that the South Korean team, which worked hard to qualify by working out a sophisticated rotation, should be weighed down by North Korean no-hopers for the sake of a political stunt.

    The national team is the only women's ice hockey team in South Korea -- there are no local clubs either in schools or businesses. That means the players are all individual enthusiasts and have trained along with men.

    Goalkeeper Shin So-jung (28) wanted to be a figure skater when she was a child, but that changed when she grabbed a hockey stick in elementary school. When she went to middle school, her fellow girl players were no longer physically able to handle the rough-and-tumble game with their male counterparts, but Shin barreled through.

    She sent videotapes of her games to a university in Canada and was admitted, becoming in 2016 the first Korean woman to play for the U.S. National Women's Hockey League by joining the New York Riveters (now Metropolitan Riveters).

    Today, she makes only around W15 million a year, barely enough to cover her rent (US$1=1,072). 

    South Korean ice hockey players face the national flag after a match against North Korea in Gangneung, Gangwong Province in April last year. /Yonhap

    At 34, Han Soo-jin is the oldest member of the team. She's a pianist by training and played ice hockey at a club. She liked it so much that it took her seven years to graduate from music school and she then decided to try her luck on the ice rink instead of the keyboard.

    She worked her way through study in Japan, making 300 dumplings a day to pay for tuition and living expenses. She is considered to be the best offense player on the Korean national team and currently has no job. "I became addicted to ice hockey and haven't been able to kick the habit," she said.

    The South Korean women's ice hockey team used to consist entirely of hobby players. They included schoolteachers, sports class coaches and even a screenwriter, who worked by day and trained at night. Even the present members of the national squad include students and the unemployed.

    A few private businesses offered to sponsor them after they qualified for the Winter Olympics, but money is still extremely tight. They train from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and beyond.

    Team members have kept out of the controversy over the inter-Korean team. One veteran player said, "We might upset our supporters if we talk about our personal opinions." 

    But an official at the Korea Ice Hockey Association was more forthright. "Our athletes sacrificed their youth to play in the Olympics and they gave up their job prospects and personal lives," he said. "Now they face an even more uncertain future." 

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