Mon, Feb 05, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Training ‘tougher’ in North Korea

Reuters, SEOUL

Korea (blue) and Sweden (yellow) vie for the puck yesterday during a friendly at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, South Korea.

Photo: EPA

Hwangbo Young, a North Korean ice hockey player who in 1997 defected to South Korea, said that the first time she played in the South “it felt like a joke.”

The player, now a 40-year-old teacher, was not referring to the caliber of players, but to the relatively comfortable conditions in which they trained.

In Pyeongchang, South Korea, the North and South are to field a combined women’s ice hockey team as part of a unity effort engineered by South Korean officials.

Their first game was played yesterday in front of 3,000 spectators in Incheon, South Korea. After practicing together for only a week, they lost to 3-1 to Sweden.

The combined team is forcing coaches and players to overcome wide differences, from training and tactics, to diet and motivation.

“In North Korea, training itself is very tough,” Hwangbo said, standing at an indoor ice rink in Seoul where she was teaching a group of junior-high school girls.

She was 12 years old when she first started playing the sport.

“There wasn’t an ice rink, so we could play only in winter. We set up a fence around a sports ground and made ice to play there,” she said.

Twenty-two North Korean athletes are in the South to compete in the Games from Friday to Feb. 25.

“North Korea is a cold region with a lot of snow, and therefore many ordinary people enjoy diverse winter sports, but athletes do not get a chance to be trained at a world level and there are really few examples of actual achievements,” Dongguk University professor of North Korean studies Kim Yong-hyun said.

Six years after Hwangbo and her family defected, she was a member of South Korea’s first national women’s ice hockey team when it competed in the 2003 Asian Winter Games in Japan.

At the time, she looked forward to seeing old friends on the North Korea team.

“I tried to talk to them, but they called me ‘a traitor who betrayed your home country,’” Hwangbo said.

She is skeptical as South Korea prepares to compete with 12 North Korean players, saying the standard of ice hockey in the North had slipped.

“They couldn’t catch up with new trends and are still playing in an old style. They’re lacking a lot,” Hwangbo said.

The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, voiced concerns over the politically driven combination, but has since said she would work to make sure they develop a “shared mission.”

“I think the North Korean players that will be added to our team, they want to win too,” she told reporters.

Other North Korean athletes who defected tell a similar story. As a young boxer in North Korea, Choi Hyun-mi, 29, says she often faced brutal training regimes after she was drafted into a training program at the age of 11.

She was one of 20 young boxers hoping to represent North Korea at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

In the early mornings, people were so keen to run further than their teammates that they would sneak out of the dormitories ahead of the pack, she said.

“If any rustling sound was heard, then all 20 of us would wake up and get out to run,” she said.

“Everything was competition. We took showers after running, but the last one who left a shower room had to clean up. Eating was a competition too. Food was limited. It was on a first-come, first-serve basis. The one who came early ate more than the one who came late,” she added.

North Korean athletes have done better in the Summer Olympics, with 54 medals, including seven at Rio in 2016, their best overall showing since 1992.

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