LAUSANNE, August 27, 2018 – A Unifed Korea team made history yet again on Sunday after winning gold in the 500-metre women’s dragon boat race at the 2018 Asian Games.
The gold and the tears of joy, came a day after the United team – known simply as ‘Korea’ and comprising eight athletes from North Korea and four from South Korea – had already conquered the headlines by winning bronze in the 200m women’s dragon boat and securing its first medal at a major multi-sport competition.
For many, the bronze medal was already the highest of achievements, proving that after the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, the dialogue of unification through sport was more than just talk, and that the sporting value could be as important as the political.
The Arrirang anthem
The gold medal however, along with underlining not just competitiveness but domination, meant that for the first time, a United Korean team would be hearing a joint anthem.
“The Korean folk song, Arirang, that is popular across the Korean peninsula, was chosen as the anthem to be played if Korea won a medal. It was an incredible experience, seeing the tears of the girls as they listened to it together, for the first time,” South Korean AIPS Executive Committee member Hee Don Jung described.
A Unified Korean team was competing in three sports at the 2018 Asian Games, women’s basketball, dragon boat and rowing, and while dragon boat racing has a strong presence in both Koreas, a medal seemed almost impossible leading up to the Games.
Obstacles to gold
“We were worried – it wasn’t the best start for the dragon boat teams. They only had three weeks training together. The North Korean racers only arrived in Seoul on July 29 before the team moved to Chungjoo Lake in central Korea to train,” Hee Don, who is in Indonesia covering the Asian Games for national South Korean broadcaster SBS said.
In a sport like dragon boat racing, where crews of 10 athletes have to move in sync to power a large boat, communication is key, and this turned into another obstacle for the Korean team
“It became obvious early on that communication was a problem. In South Korea we use the English terms like ‘catch’ and ‘finish’ as the two most important communication markers of the race, but the North Korea athletes do not speak English, and exclusively use the Korea langue terms.”
In the end, it was the South Koreans that adapted to the terminology of their North teammates, and Hee Don Jung believes this specific combination of the two Korean mentalities is what can make their sporting partnership so successful.
“The South Korean racers knew the old Korean terms and had no problem switching. North Koreans are spiritually and mentally very strong, while in South Korea we are known for being very cooperative, this brings about a good sporting synergy.
“The North Korean attitude gave their South Korean teammates the ideal kind of motivation, and this is what led to success in Indonesia ultimately, I think,” Hee Don said.
A unified Korean team had previously won bronze at the Table Tennis World Championships in Sweden in March this year, having decided to compete as one just hours before they were due to face each other in the quarterfinals.
Hee Don hopes that the success of that team, followed by the even more historic gold in Indonesia can lead to more united teams in the future, and maybe one day just a United team.
“We need to take it step by step, but the hope is there. This gold was a miracle, and hopefully it can inspire even more cooperation.”
Just a week after 127 families from South Korea were invited to the North in an organized reunification meeting, and six months after the Unified Korea flag was raised at the Olympic Games in PyeongChang with a North Korean delegation of hundreds, progress is visible, and most importantly, it is continuing on.
“This cooperation seen in sports is a good example to all of Korean society that we can and should work together. It inspires belief, just like the family unification we have seen. And nobody wants to stop here,” Hee Don explained.
The Unified dragon boat team are now looking to compete together at the upcoming World Championships in Atlanta, Georgia in mid-September, coming off the success of Indonesia, but there are obstacles ahead yet again.
“Because of the US sanctions on North Korea it is still near impossible for the athletes to get a visa in order to compete. But the Korean Federation has been in touch with International Canoe Federation, and now the matter has been taken to the Korean Olympic Committee and the IOC in search of support.”