GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – All the protests and ceremonies surrounding the first combined Korean team in Olympic history are about to take a pause, at least for a few hours.
The Korean women’s hockey team, its every move watched and dissected since North Koreans were added to the roster just a few weeks ago, will make its Olympics debut in a sold-out game against Switzerland on Saturday night. It will be an extraordinary moment for Koreans, and it comes just 24 hours after the opening ceremony.
Tuning out all the politics will be impossible.
“Obviously, it’s in the back of our heads that this goes bigger than just hockey and this combined team,” defenseman Marissa Brandt said Friday. “But we just focus on the game and focus on what we can control.”
Playing hockey is all they can do. Rumors swirled Friday as the Koreans practiced that Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, might attend the game and be among the capacity crowd of 6,000 at the Kwandong Hockey Center. She arrived Friday as the first member of her family to visit South Korea since the Korean War in 1950-53.
The Koreans got a glimpse last week of how the game might feel in an exhibition against Sweden.
Coach Sarah Murray recalled pulling up for the game in Incheon and the crowd on the road outside split pretty evenly between people against the North Koreans joining the team and supporters waving flags showing the full Korean peninsula. The Koreans lost 3-1, but the building was packed and the atmosphere was electric.
“We didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Murray said. “We’ve just been preparing by ourselves, and we feel like one team. Not that we’re making a political statement, we’re just here to win.”
As the Koreans lined up for the traditional tune of “Arirang” being substituted for the national anthem, Murray noticed the crowd going wild.
“I elbowed my assistant coach, and I’m like, ‘We’re making history right now.’ Yeah, we forgot about it. We’ve just been preparing so much for this,” Murray said.
The two Koreas have worked together to send a joint team to major international sports events only twice before – both in 1991, for the world table tennis championships in Japan and for soccer’s World Youth Championship in Portugal. Korean athletes marched with a flag showing the whole peninsula at nine international events, including the Olympics and Asian Games.
Playing together on an Olympic stage is a much different challenge, and this team came together only on Jan. 25. That happened after the International Olympic Committee approved an agreement to add 12 North Koreans to a roster of 23 already set by the South Koreans.
Only 22 will dress to play Saturday night, leaving Murray the difficult task of deciding whether to play any of the North Koreans or sit some of the South Koreans she has worked with for many weeks. Murray gave no hints Friday. Some players have been ill, and she said she is waiting to see who is fully healthy to play the Swiss, who won bronze four years ago in Sochi.
With intense media attention, the Koreans got a break Thursday when practice was canceled. Players visited a beach on the east coast for a little rest.
“We enjoyed sea breeze, laughed and had some delicious sodas,” goaltender Shin So Jung said in Korean.
For the players, politics has not been a topic of conversation. Shin said they have become close to each other and talk a lot. Brandt, who doesn’t speak Korean, settles for hugs and smiles from her new teammates. She said it’s been an easy adjustment all around.
Murray and the players have simple but lofty goals for a team ranked 22nd in the world last year: Win a game in the three-game preliminary round; advance out of pool play; and help hockey grow in South Korea.
“It’s finally game time, which is what we’ve been waiting for,” Brandt said. “It’s been really nice having the girls join our team, and yeah we’re just excited.”