I’m not a particularly good athlete, but I love sports. When I say sports taught me everything I know about being a woman, I’m not kidding. My desire to recreate Brandi Chastain’s infamous celebration of Team USA’s 1999 World Cup Championship led to the purchase of my first bra. Because of the WNBA, I saw Lisa Leslie become the first woman to slam-dunk on my television and, unlike previous generations, I was afforded the opportunity to dream about growing up to become a professional basketball player. [Spoiler Alert: I didn’t.] But, that’s besides the point. Sports taught me to forget the word “impossible,” which explains why I spend every day working with incredibly strong women to prevent nuclear war.
As an avid sports fan, obviously I’m stoked for the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. What game am I looking forward to the most, you ask? Easy. Bright and early on the morning of February 10th, I will be glued to my TV, excitedly watching Korea take on Switzerland in women’s hockey.
And let me tell you: This is not just any game. This game could save the world.
Just a few short weeks ago, the Korean team was thrown a huge curveball—for the first time ever, North and South Korea would compete as a unified team in a sport at the Olympic Games.
The modern Olympic games were created to bring political enemies together, while promoting peace and unity within the international community. In the midst of a “my nuclear button is bigger than yours” competition between
two children the President of the United States and the North Korean Supreme Leader, the Unified Korean Women’s Hockey team, made up of 23 South Korean and 12 North Korean players, is exactly the type of “sports diplomacy” the world needs right now.
This unification is not without indignation or controversy, and I can see why many people, especially women, feel that way. When asked why South Korea chose the women’s hockey team, and not the men’s, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon said that the women’s team was ranked lower and thus didn’t have a high chance of bringing home medals. He conveniently overlooked that the men’s team has a similarly low likelihood of winning a medal. But, the bigger problem is that we do not place appropriate value on the contributions of women at all, particularly not in sports or international affairs.
This isn’t surprising when women are frequently left out of conversations about their own lives and bodies altogether. Sports and international affairs are traditionally understood as “for men,” which is both ridiculous and problematic. When we cut off women from athletic opportunities, we certainly limit their individual development, but when we cut them off from foreign policy decisions, we are limiting the world’s chance for peace. There is overwhelming quantitative data showing that in peace and security situations where women’s inclusion is prioritized, peace is more likely—particularly when women are in a position to influence decision making. Additionally, with the direction the U.S. is headed in, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
There’s no doubt that this is an impossibly tall order for Coach Sarah Murray, a Canadian-born, U.S. hockey star. For more than 67 years, the Korean people have been separated, is it fair to ask this of them? Perhaps not. But, it would be a mistake to write them off. Society demands more of women while simultaneously devaluing their achievements, just look at Serena Williams, the UCONN basketball dynasty, and every working woman who is denied equal pay for equal work. To me, the more interesting question is: If sports have the power to subvert traditional gender norms, and the inclusion of women in peace talks leads to more effective solutions, could the Unified Korean Women’s Hockey Team be the diplomatic breakthrough we need to avert nuclear war? If you like an underdog story, this is the team to watch.
No matter the outcome, Coach Murray and the North and South Korean players have already made history, and I hope they know how proud we are of them. Thank you Team Korea—we see how hard you worked, how much you sacrificed and overcame for our collective safety—and we can’t wait to watch you kick some butt. I don’t know about you guys, but personally, I plan to set an alarm to catch their 7am match live—women’s sports fans know better than to count on primetime coverage.
Kristina Romines is the Field Director of Women’s Action for New Directions. For over three decades, WAND has worked to empower women to be agents of change for nuclear disarmament and champions for diplomacy over war.