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(Olympics) (Yonhap Interview) Building unified Korean hockey team resembled completing puzzle: int'l hockey chief

All Headlines 12:54 February 22, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- Combining the women's ice hockey teams from South Korea and North Korea for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was akin to completing a puzzle, with so many different factors involved, the sport's international leader said Thursday.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), spoke at length about the birth of an idea for the unified team, and what made the unprecedented integration possible.

The Koreas had never fielded a joint team in any sport at any Olympics before PyeongChang 2018. The 23 South Koreans and 12 North Koreans were brought together on Jan. 25, five days after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved an inter-Korean agreement on the project.

South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan first made public mention of the combined team last June. But Fasel revealed that the idea went much further back, saying, "It was four to five years of work."

Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, attends a press conference for the women's tournament during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung on Feb. 19, 2018. (Yonhap)

Fasel, IIHF chief since 1994, first presented the idea to Kim Jin-sun, the inaugural head of PyeongChang's Olympic organizing committee, after PyeongChang won the bid to host the Olympics in 2011. Then Fasel did the same with Kim's successor at PyeongChang's helm, Cho Yang-ho.

Both Kim and Cho showed interest, but they also had a common problem.

"They said it was a very difficult political challenge," Fasel said. "They were interested but said we had to wait."

When Kim and Cho were in charge, South Korea had two conservative leaders, first Lee Myung-bak and then Park Geun-hye, in office. Seoul's relations with Pyongyang were at their lowest in years. Having even basic sports exchanges, let alone putting together a unified team for an Olympic Games, looked virtually impossible.

For the IIHF, things were going better on the sporting end. In September 2014, it decided to award both South Korean men's and women's team a spot in the Olympic tournament as the host nation, and the push for a joint Korean team on the women's side became even stronger.

Then Fasel got the final piece of the puzzle he needed -- a leadership change in Seoul.

"The election of President Moon Jae-in changed everything," Fasel said. "President Moon was very much interested to have participation of the North. That was the first political step."

Indeed, Moon, a more liberal-minded president elected in May following Park's impeachment, invited North Korea to participate in PyeongChang 2018, the first Winter Olympics to take place in South Korea and said a joint team would help send a message of peace to the rest of the world.

It took some last-minute convincing to get the Korea Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) on board, too. Fasel said KIHA President Chung Mong-won and the women's national team head coach, Sarah Murray, were "not so happy" with the joint team idea because they wanted to build a strong team of their own. According to Fasel, Chung also felt it would be unfair to keep South Korean players out of the Olympics when they had prepared for it for a long time.

Hence the idea that 12 North Korean players would be added to the South Korean roster without cutting anyone.

Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, speaks with Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Gangneung, home of all hockey games during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, on Feb. 22, 2018. (Yonhap)

"It was against every rule that we have in the IIHF," Fasel said of expanding the entry for one country only. "But the idea to have a message for peace (at the Olympics) ... it was the ideal idea to have."

Fasel said he had always maintained a good relationship with North Korean hockey leaders, and thanked Chang Ung, Pyongyang's lone IOC member, for "opening the doors in the North."

"There have been highs and lows," Fael said of the process leading to the joint team's foundation. "It's a team work. Everybody brought something to this."

Fasel said he kept discussions of the combined team "very, very secret" because he knew there would be people who would have tried to shoot down the idea. When the team was finally put together, Switzerland, one of Korea's opponents in the preliminary round, expressed reservations about having just that one team carry 12 extra players while all other teams were limited to 23.

Perhaps Switzerland took its frustration out on the ice when it beat the unified Korean team 8-0 in the historic first game on Feb. 10. Fasel, a native of Switzerland who attended the game, wasn't too pleased that the Swiss ran up the score.

"I am a little bit disappointed with how they played their first game in front of the world," Fasel said. "Ice hockey is also (about) respect and fair play. Why put up eight goals? They didn't kill the moment but it's too bad. It would have been maybe a better signal if they hadn't scored eight goals."

Fasel was in the stands with South Korean President Moon, IOC President Thomas Bach and Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was part of a delegation from Pyongyang. Fasel recalled that it was "a very emotional moment" for him personally.

Fasel said he would like to keep the joint team alive because the message of peace "was well received by a lot of people." But he also admitted having another combined team at the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022 "will be very difficult."

"If the South Korean team would qualify for the Beijing Olympics, then we could have discussions. Why not?" he said. "But the message here was so much more important because we are playing in the South. It's not the same if the unified team is playing in China or Europe. I am not naive. This is very difficult."

The important takeaway from the first-ever combined team, in Fasel's words, is that it showed decision-makers that it was possible.

"At least this is the first step for people to discuss," Fasel said. "Preisdent Moon has been invited to go to North. Bach will go to the North. It's in the hands of these people. It was a very important signal to give to them that it's possible to come together."

Players on the joint Korean women's ice hockey team huddle around the net before the start of its first game during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics against Switzerland at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 10, 2018. (Yonhap)

The joint women's team lost all five games it played, while the men's South Korean team also went winless in four games. Asked if it was the right decision to award the host country automatic berths, Fasel said, "For sure. You can see the progress."

The South Korean men, ranked 21st, battled the sixth-ranked Czech Republic hard before losing 2-1. Then in the qualification playoffs, South Korea initially went 3-0 against world No. 4 Finland before fighting back with two goals in the second period and ultimately losing 5-2.

After that 8-0 drubbing against Switzerland, the women's joint team suffered another 8-0 loss to Sweden, but got its first-ever goal against Japan in a 4-1 loss. Facing the same Swiss team in a classification match, Korea played its best game of the tournament while losing by just 2-0.

Now it's up to South Korea to build on its Olympic experience, Fasel said.

"It must be sustainable. It's very important not just to prepare teams for the Olympics," he said. "We'll have discussion with the KIHA to find ways to be sustainable and to attract young boys and girls to play the game and give them opportunities."


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