The International Hockey Federation (FIH) Congress, which concluded in New Delhi on November 3, has set into motion an interesting development that could leave an indelible mark not just in the history of the sport, but also on global politics. At the sidelines of the event, delegates from North Korea and South Korea sat down to draw out an initial plan “to work together to develop hockey”, while giving the peace process in the region a big shot in the arm by fielding an unified team in future FIH tournaments.
Many, especially the detractors, would term it as a diplomatic stunt, all the more since there is still a Cold War-ish standoff between the two nations. However, a combined North Korea and South Korea team playing its heart out at a World Cup would make history by just turning up, regardless of what the result on the field would be, and the political and diplomatic repercussions that it could bring with it.
Despite the inherent challenges involved, hockey could witness such a high soon ― as early as next year’s Hockey Series Finals in fact ― if the North and South Korean governments come on the same page as the respective sports federations.
It is a fact that Peace in the Korean peninsula is quite a way off. Even as diplomacy ― or lack of it ― on one side; and military drills and show of might on the other, paint a bleak picture, sports, of late, has been showing the politicos how it could be done.
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When North and South Korean athletes marched in for the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang (South Korea) under the same flag, the whole world stood up, took notice, and applauded the gesture which had the potential to thaw things that no diplomatic intervention could in recent history. The Winter Games saw an unified women’s ice hockey team represent the two countries, with players from both sides of the border winning hearts despite losing the matches.
“The idea for a unified team in field hockey stems from there,” revealed an official of the South Korea Hockey Association, which put forth the idea while discussing the many avenues for collaboration.
“There are similar tie-ups in Taekwondo and couple of other sports and so, despite being just the initial stages of discussion, the two sides are keen about it, and we (Asian Hockey Federation - AHF) were more than happy to extend our full support,” said AHF CEO Tayyab Ikram.
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The AHF, led by Ikram, facilitated the first meeting of the delegates from the two federations ― Kang, Kinam Yoo and Seuingjin Hoo from South; and Chun-hun Ho and Nam Choi Ri from the North.
“It was a very important meeting and I am glad to say that both the countries have agreed to cooperate and take hockey into a positive direction, using the sport to bring peace as well,” added Ikram.
While the combined team is one of the projects both the federations wish to undertake, the collaboration will have other initiatives too ― there are plans to start an exchange programme, with players from North Korea playing in tournaments in the South.
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“One of the projects is to have a combined team in the future to play in AHF and FIH events,” explained Ikram. “It was put forth by the South Korean delegates and our friends from North Korea are very open to this.
“Taking this forward, South Korea and North Korea (hockey associations) will be talking to their foreign offices to formalise these things,” added the AHF CEO. “Asian Hockey federation and the International Hockey Federation will play a mediators role in order to bring these two teams together.”
Now that the initial talks are done with, the real challenge would begin for AHF as well as the North and South Korean hockey bodies. We got an hint of magnitude of the challenge when both delegates repeatedly said “no, nothing is finalised” while one attempted to understand if the officials had go aheads from their respective governments to make such a proposal.
The officials do understand the difficulty in the task of convincing the heads of states. However, while citing the ice hockey team at the Winter Games, they seem to have not considered the special circumstances under which the unifying of teams happened. It was a mega sporting festival which was under the global scanner and which also coincided with turmoil in the region thanks to a standoff between Kim Jong-un -led North Korea and Donald Trump’s USA.
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Both South Korea, the hosts of the Games, as well as North Korea had a lot to gain from the “friendly gesture”. And fielding a combined team never really compromised the team’s chances at the Games. Korea ― South or North ― are not really powerhouses in ice hockey, and fielding a combined team was a masterstroke that earned them much more fanfare than even the eventual gold medal winners.
The situation is entirely different in field hockey. South Korea, though going through a transition period at the moment, was a force in the sport not so long back. Experts say it is just a matter of time before they get back to their glory days. North, on the other side, are not a known entity in the sport.
“We have around 1,000 players involved in the sport at a competitive level in North Korea,” revealed one of the officials. “We have internal tournaments as well as school and college level competitions. So hockey is very active in the country.”
But the words of the official betrayed the fact that the number of players, and the tournaments, not exactly hint at a huge talent pool from which players could be taken to combine with the much-better South Koreans. That could create conflict and imbalance, and also jeopardise South’s chances at the tournaments. It is a given that the marriage of teams would benefit the North more than the South, and that leaves us wondering why the countries would agree to it in the first place.
The main reason could be the joint bid North and South Korea are planning to make to host the 2032 Olympic Games. Apparently, the two countries will officially intimate the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about the bid soon. And, it has also been reported that they want to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a single entity. This latest development happened during the inter-Korean sports talks on November 2, a day before the hockey officials got together in New Delhi to chalk out their plan of cooperation.
If things work out as planned, hockey could take off in the North or there could be some animosity out of the whole exercise because of the imbalance in quality of hockey players across the border, and related conflict.
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The first and most likely scenario would be the implementation of the proposed exchange programmes. That could give valuable exposure to North Korean players, in time, bringing their quality up, and thereby that of the game as a whole in the country. Since North Korea doesn't have any real interest in hockey, piggybacking off the South would make sense as far as garnering some diplomatic as well as sporting points.
Whatever be the outcome of these talks are, the officials from both sides of the border promised they would work really hard to make it happen. It seems they are keen to use hockey as an engine for some meaningful change in perception in their countries about the neighbours, while the AHF and the FIH would want to ride the global attention that it would garner. Especially since the game as a whole is seeking attention and newer avenues and “markets for expansion”.
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