They cheered. They cried. They hugged. They watched as fans by the thousands shouted, "We are one." Unification flags for the two Koreas, longtime rivals and sometimes bitter enemies, flapped across the Olympic arena. And now they go back home, quite possibly never to see each other again. The Korean women's hockey team, which included players from both North and South, ended its historic Olympic run yesterday with a fifth straight loss but a host of unforgettable feel-good sparks. Team Korea was defeated by Sweden 6-1 in a seventh-place match in the Pyeongchang Games yesterday, a healthy crowd again on hand to cheer them on. The team lost by a combined score of 28-2 in its games and was rarely competitive. Yet the repeated defeats were, for many, insignificant. Instead, this notion dominated discussion: the significance of the Koreas' first-ever joint Olympic squad taking the ice smack in the middle of an abrupt, now ongoing reconciliation between the rival Koreas.
"They are an amazing group," said the team's Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, who wept while hugging some of her squad.
"I could have never imagined our players being this competitive in the Olympics," Murray said after the game. "So when I was standing there I was just so proud of them, just watching them skate around and salute the fans."
South Korean forward Kim Heewon wiped away tears as she and teammates waved to cheering fans during a standing ovation. Some spectators wept as Korean players -North and South -stood in a circle at the center of the rink and hit the ice with their sticks in a post-game ceremony before leaving the rink.
The team was formed just days before the Pyeongchang Games began during an eleventh-hour push by the two Koreas to improve ties after a year of spiking nuclear tensions that triggered fears of a war on the Korean Peninsula. The team's makeup was a key part of agreements the Koreas struck to cooperate in the Olympics, which eventually provided a breather from a nuclear standoff involving the North, the South and the United States.
Despite initial worries about their teamwork, North and South Korean players were seen getting along with each other. There were many small moments of warm relations that seemed to improve as the games went on. Every minor interaction between North and South Korean players was in the news because it was so extraordinary. They took selfies, visited a beach and created a dictionary to overcome the North-South dialect divide.
"We have really enjoyed working with the North's players and coaches and we really do want to help them in the future," Murray said. She said a possible "exchange game" has been discussed to maintain the connection.
"They want to get better, they want to keep learning from us and we want to help them," she said. "And there are things that we can learn from them, too."
The team's formation raised hopes that Olympics-related warming gestures could transcend beyond sports and contribute to easing nuclear tensions. But it is unclear if the good mood will last after the Olympics end.