“A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History,” unfolds like the cinematic story of Disney’s 1992 hit “The Mighty Ducks,” except in Seth Berkman’s debut book this team of hockey players —South Korean, North Korean, American and Canadian, all female and of Korean descent — don’t win a single game.
For more than a year, Berkman, a freelance journalist on assignment for The New York Times, follows the Korean women’s ice-hockey team leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics. The games were held in South Korea, granting the new band of contenders an automatic slot. The Korean Ice Hockey Association paid special attention to the women’s team, providing an American coach and “importing” players from abroad to ensure it meets the International Ice Hockey Federation’s mandate that “South Korea prove itself worthy.”
Berkman chronicles the unique trials the team faces as an underdog getting ready to face the world’s best players on the ice — and how the team ended up capturing hearts around the world.
The book, released in the fall, comes at an apt time. Since 2012, women have participated in every Olympic sport, and as of 1991 all new sports have been required to contain women’s events, per International Olympic Committee rules. By 2018, close to half of the athletes at the Olympic Games were women.
But progress has been slow and late in coming. Just this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for the elimination of discrimination against women and girls in sport [sic].
Female hockey players in Korea fight some of the worst stereotyping and discrimination around, ranging from being underestimated to being entirely dismissed by South Korean hockey executives and their government.
“Even before the [Olympic] Games, they earned just over $50 a day — minus costs for health insurance — a stipend they only received if they trained at least fifteen days per month,” Berkman writes. Male hockey players in Korea get a full six-figure salary with benefits, plus better equipment and much better training.
Berkman tells the individual team members’ compelling stories of sacrifice and describes the determination it took for them to stay loyal to the sport and to one another.
A turning point comes when seasoned American and Canadian players of Korean descent are meticulously researched and added by the Korean Ice Hockey Association to the team’s roster nearly three years before the Olympic games. The South Korean players navigate culture gaps as they learn to work with their American coach Sarah Murray by the fall of 2014 and with players they endearingly call “imports” a year later. Throughout months of training, tight-knit friendships form and the mix of “imports” becomes the new norm.
Then, just a couple weeks before the Olympics, North Korean players joined together to form a unified Korean team in a politically driven decision by men in power in South Korea’s government and the Korean Ice Hockey Association, both groups who don’t take female hockey players seriously.
The team’s chance to prove itself is tested when the North Korean players, whom they have not trained with, are granted mandatory participation quotas of at least three North Korean players required to be dressed in uniform (out of 22 in an Olympic game), ensuring that the two countries put on a show of unity. Pulling together at the last minute and making the most of their situation while under an international spotlight, team members prove incredibly resilient.
Back in 2017, the 72nd General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal, echoing ancient Greek tradition and encouraging member states to develop peace through “establishment of innovative partnerships.”
However earnest the effort by the South Korean government, its symbol of peace during the 2018 games turned into a political circus when more than 200 exuberantly chanting North Korean cheerleaders stood up in the stadium (see video below), and all eyes turned to the entrance of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean president, who attended on his behalf. Not only does the focus suddenly shift away from the game itself, but it is also hard for the Korean team down on the ice to hear directions.
The team’s superhuman efforts do not go unrecognized. Hundreds of spectators, many not even familiar with hockey, come to cheer them on. By the time the team is playing against Japan, tickets have sold out and it looks as if the South Korean government has succeeded in making the team a symbol of peace and hope for reunification of the two Koreas. The players, having developed close bonds, go through the inevitable bittersweet farewell.
Afterward, the team pushes Korea hockey executives to keep promises made during the heat of the games. Following the example set by the 2017 United States women’s hockey team, which demanded and now receives better pay and family benefits, the Korean team sent a letter to the Korean Ice Hockey Association threatening to boycott a World Championship if not granted equal wages and treatment as well as more support overall.
Ultimately, the Korean Ice Hockey Association suspended the team for 60 days, but also fired the head of the hockey association. The team did not get everything it asked for, but for female athletes in Korea, it was an unprecedented win.
The fight for gender equality continues on a global scale. Underscoring this struggle are the dramatic stories of individual athletes who must fight against odds to beat the system — never mind their opponents in the field. Not surprisingly, Berkman is talking with production companies about a possible film adaptation of his book.
Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.