In ancient Greece, warring sides would sign a truce for the duration of the Olympic Games so athletes could safely join the sporting festival. That ideal, sport as a bridge to peace, still endures despite the modern games being darkened so often by scandal.
So it was encouraging on Jan. 26 when 12 female hockey players from North Korea stepped off a bus to receive flowers and cheerful introductions to their new teammates from South Korea. It was a truce in the spirit of the ancient games that few saw coming.
The Korean peninsula has been a nuclear tinderbox that seemed more likely to ignite than unite in any way. Then suddenly the North decided to send athletes to the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang in the South and, more surprising, the rivals joined to form one women’s hockey team.
This doesn’t mean, of course, the demilitarized zone that has separated the Koreas since 1954 will soon become a rose garden or the missiles aimed across the border will be dismantled. Sport alone doesn’t make peace, but maybe there are days when it can nudge humanity toward a more peaceful coexistence.
For that reason, it’s easy to cheer for the Korean hockey team during the games. The team’s success will not be measured by medals, but by its capacity to show that reconciliation and peace begin with simple acts of dialogue, tolerance and acceptance.
These are the first Olympics since the Vatican hosted an international symposium 16 months ago called “Sport at the Service of Humanity.” More than 400 leaders from religion and sport were welcomed by Pope Francis to discuss how sport and faith are interconnected and how the virtues they encourage can improve the world.
“Sport makes it possible to build a culture of encounter among everyone” said the pope. “I dream of sport as the practice of human dignity turned into a vehicle of fraternity.”
True sportsmanship requires humility, integrity, fairness, compassion and respect. Likewise for social justice and peace. Pope John Paul II believed the virtues intrinsic to sportsmanship mirrored those essential to foster compassion and harmony among nations. The Olympics, despite its faults, is a symbol of those ideals.
Now it is up to a Korean hockey team to succeed where diplomats and bombastic leaders have failed. They have lived together, trained together and marched into the opening ceremonies behind one flag. At the rink, the coaches arranged the dressing room so that every North Korean has a South Korean on either side.
The players are being challenged to overcome historic suspicions to compete as equals and teammates and, perhaps, international role models.
To that we say, Go Korea Go!