GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- The global governing body of ice hockey said Monday it will consider keeping the joint Korean women's team for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said at a press conference that he feels "very, very happy" about how the unified team has come together to represent peace at the ongoing PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Asked if the IIHF will try to keep the two Koreas together in women's hockey, Fasel said, "Why not?"
"I think that'd be a very good operation to do until 2022 to still keep the joint team in Beijing and have this unified team as a message of peace," Fasel said at Gangneung Hockey Centre, the site of the women's semifinals later Monday.
Rene Fasel (C), 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, flanked by Lee Hee-beom (L), head of the Olympic organizing committee, and Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, chairman of the women`s tournament. (Yonhap)
The Koreas reached a landmark agreement in mid-January to combine their women's hockey teams for the first Winter Olympics to take place in South Korea. The International Olympic Committee approved the deal Jan. 20, and five days later, with the start of the Olympics about two weeks away, 12 North Korean players joined 23 South Koreans for the unprecedented joint team.
The Koreas have fielded joint teams in table tennis and youth football at world championships before but have never had a combined team in any sport at any Olympics prior to PyeongChang 2018.
South Korea came into the Olympics ranked 22nd in the world, three spots above North Korea. And the joint team has been overmatched on the ice, losing its three preliminary games to Switzerland, Sweden and Japan by a combined 20-1. But Korea held its own in a rematch against Switzerland in their classification match Sunday, only losing by 2-0.
Despite these losses, Korea has been the darling of the tournament, drawing about 15,000 fans combined over its four games.
Fasel spoke of "many, many political obstacles" that had to be cleared before the teams could be brought together. And he also took his time to thank Sarah Murray, head coach of the South Korean team who was put in charge of the combined squad, for her hard work.
"Poor girl: She was not so happy in the beginning because adding 12 players for her was not so easy," Fasel said. "But now, the team is coming together."
Accompanying Fasel to the press conference, Lee Hee-beom, head of PyeongChang's Olympic organizing committee, said he was "proud"
to see the unified Korean team on the ice, no matter how much trouble it experienced on the ice.
"It's a symbol of a peace Olympic Games. Only sports can unify people beyond politics, beyond any type of barriers," Lee said. "Putting athletes from South and North Korea on the same team was a very proud moment, one that was a true sign of peace. This is what the Olympics is about: peace, unity and sportsmanship."
Lee credited Fasel with initiating the project to launch the joint Korean team a few years ago. Fasel himself thanked Lee for his support and insisted the realization of the unified team took some great teamwork.
"This was a very interesting exercise," Fasel said of discussions leading to the joint team, while also thanking North Korea's lone IOC member, Chang Ung, for being a helpful liaison.
He added the IIHF will have discussions with the IOC and the two Koreas regarding maintaining the joint Korean team. For PyeongChang 2018, South Korea initially got a spot in the women's tournament as the host nation. But they could have a chance to qualify for Beijing 2022 on merit because the women's competition may expand from eight nations to 10. Fasel said Beijing 2022's organizers have requested an addition of two teams to the current format.
Lee said the next step for women's hockey in South Korea would be to have a professional league. He said PyeongChang is in talks with the sports ministry to build a league after the Olympics, so that it will lay a solid foundation for a stronger national team in the future.
Fasel added, "We need a stronger domestic league to make (the national team) sustainable." (Yonhap)