The joint Korean women’s ice hockey team ended their historic Olympic run on Tuesday with a crushing 6-1 defeat to Sweden but still received an emotional standing ovation from the crowd.
The team was hastily assembled following a landmark deal between South and North Korea only a few weeks before the Pyeongchang Games, and has 12 North Koreans on its roster.
They have found little success on the ice, shipping 28 goals and scoring only twice in five games.
But they are a crowd favourite at the Games in South Korea, hailed as a potent symbol of the “Peace Olympics” in Pyeongchang.
The home support roared when the South Korean Han Soo-jin scored to tie the game in the first period, before the Swedes ran out easy winners.
For many, the unified team’s games have been about much more than the score and when the final buzzer sounded, all sides of the arena rose as one, accompanied by a deafening round of applause.
In return, the players bowed deeply.
The Korean team’s head coach, the Canadian Sarah Murray, broke into tears as she watched her players salute the crowd and hugged North Korean coach Pak Chul ho.
“All the sacrifices our players and team have been making, it was worth it,” Murray told reporters.
“The chemistry and the message that our players were able to send — that sports transcends the barriers… they did a great job.”
South Korean goaltender Shin So-jung added: “It is the first time to be cheered on by such a large crowd and I’m just so thankful.”
‘Message of peace’
The addition of North Korean players initially provoked a backlash in the South, with accusations that Seoul was depriving some of its own players the chance to compete at a home Olympics for political purposes.
But the sight of North and South Korean skaters on the ice together has touched many spectators, with an IOC official even suggesting that the Korean team be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The politicians made the decision… but our players and our staff are the ones that made it work,” said Murray, whose team always attracted a packed stadium and a swarm of media at each game.
“If the North’s staff was different, if the North’s players were different, if our players were different or our staff was any different, I don’t think this would have worked.”
International Ice Hockey Federation chief Rene Fasel has expressed hopes for a unified Korean team at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, referring to them as the bearers of “the message of peace”.
The players have struck up a rapport among themselves, even as they were thrashed time and time again, but suspect they are more likely to be on opposing sides in future.
“I think if we end up playing against each other again, South Korea versus North Korea, there’s definitely some hugs and some smiles,” said the South’s Randi Griffin.