By Dan Burns
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – For Korea women’s Olympic hockey coach Sarah Murray and her team, Saturday’s clash with Switzerland is still just a game even if the world sees an event loaded with political overtones in the long conflict between North and South Korea.
Murray, a 29-year-old Canadian with no background in international diplomacy, must select 23 players from her roster – recently boosted to 35 to include 12 North Koreans – to suit up for the game in sweaters emblazoned with an image of a unified Korean peninsula.
“We’ve just been preparing by ourselves,” Murray told reporters on Friday after her team’s final full workout before the tournament kicks off.
“We feel like one team. Not that we’re making a political statement, we’re just here to win.”
Nevertheless, politics have loomed large as the two Koreas field a unified team at an Olympic event for the first time.
“Our players have done a great job focusing on the hockey,” she said. “It’s only when they get off the ice and they realize that all the media are here to talk to them that we’re not just one team competing in the Olympics. All the players are the same, they just want to win.”
The countries are still technically at war since a 1953 armistice, though they have resumed talks after a year-long standoff between North Korea and the United States in which an exchange of threats between the heads of state elevated tensions and prompted the North’s continued missile and nuclear tests.
Last month the North agreed with South Korea to send 22 athletes and a 230-strong cheering squad to the Winter Games.
Twelve of the 22 are women’s hockey players assigned to a team Murray has shaped since taking the head coaching job in 2014. Under her guidance they have risen six spots to 22nd in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings.
Now, she must sit out some players who have been with her on that journey and will select three or four North Koreans in each of the three preliminary round games.
“We have some players that are not 100 percent healthy yet,” she said. “So we’re going to see if they’re capable of playing.”
Korean defenseman Marissa Brandt, who was adopted by an American couple and raised in the United States, said the integration of the North Koreans had not been disruptive.
“They fit in great with our team, and we’re just trying to get them integrated as quickly as possible” said Brandt, a team assistant captain whose Korean name is Yoonjung Park.
“They are very disciplined. They work hard, great attitude, so it’s really going well,” she added.
As she wrapped up the squad’s final practice, Murray urged her team to keep their eyes on the prize and not get distracted by the global focus cast upon them.
“It’s exciting, but we’re here to compete, and we’re here to win,” Murray, stick in hand, told the players circled around her as assistant captain Su Sie Jo translated into Korean.
The players then formed a line facing Murray and the rest of the coaching staff and bowed.
(Reporting by Dan Burns, editing by Ed Osmond)