Friday, January 31, 2020

Book Review: A Team of Their Own by Seth Berkman (2019)

(Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.)

The women’s national team for South Korean ice hockey had a problem: it sucked. As the host country for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the Korean team could qualify automatically. But the team was embarrassingly bad: as of February 2011, South Korea’s all-time record in women’s hockey was 0-15, with the cumulative score of 242-4. In 2012, the International Ice Hockey Federation issued an ultimatum: the team would not receive an automatic qualification unless it improved. As a quick fix, Korea Ice Hockey Association installed an American coach, and searched for any woman hockey player of Korean descent in the United States and Canada who could be naturalized prior to 2018. With an injection of international talent, the team did qualify for the Olympics. Then, just weeks before the Games began, North Korea proposed forming a joint team with the South Korean team as an inter-Korean gesture of goodwill.

So goes the story of Seth Berkman’s A Team of Their Own. The events surrounding the Korean women’s ice hockey team was so compelling that a book might practically write itself. The ultimate underdog improves enough to play in the world stage, thanks to a hodgepodge of players from different corners of the world overcoming their differences through the magical power of hockey! But the actual book that emerged out of Berkman’s telling is not exactly the one that might be expected by someone who followed the team in real life. On the first look, Team seems like a feel-good sports story. But dig just a bit below the surface, and a more complex story emerges to challenge the importance of cultural identity and question the purpose of sports.

(More after the jump.)

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I should not undersell the feel-goodness of Team, since the story of Korean women’s ice hockey team is as good as any sports story. Ice hockey is little known in South Korea, and women’s version even less so. South Korean women's ice hockey team used hand-me-down equipment, and their stipend was under $200 a month. They were not allowed to access the national training facility and its cafeteria, which meant their training was mostly running up and down hills outdoors and their nutrition regimen was instant ramen and delivery Chinese food. Particularly galling is the different treatment given to the men’s hockey team, who received higher stipend and better facility despite posting records that were no better than the women’s team.

Each member of the team has a story straight out of central casting. Veteran goalkeeper Shin So-jung was talented enough to join the national team at age 14 and draw interest from Brown and Harvard, but chose to attend college in Korea because her family could not afford her to study abroad, especially after her father passed away. Similarly, Choi Ji-yeon had the opportunity to attend a hockey academy in Canada but had to decline because she needed the tiny stipend she received as a national team player for her family. Han Soo-jin was an accomplished pianist at the prestigious Yonsei University college of music, but gave up her concert gown for pads, helmet and a stick in pursuit of her true passion.

Joining this likable group of Koreans was another group of women from the Korean diaspora, with incredible stories of their own. Marissa Brandt, born Park Yoon-jung, was adopted from Korea to Minnesota at age one. Marissa and her sister Hannah—biological child of the Brandts—proved to be hockey prodigies, and ended up earning national team spots for different teams: Hannah for Team USA, Marissa for South Korea. Randi Heesoo Griffin was 25 years old Ph.D. student when she received the recruiting call, four years since she played collegiate hockey for Harvard. She initially thought she was away from the game for too long, but she ends up scoring the first of only two goals the team scored in the Olympics. Coaching this group was the young Sarah Murray, daughter of the former NHL coach Andy Murray looking to make a name for herself.

The first half of Team, in which we see these individuals coming together, is an engaging read because the reader cannot help but root for these women. This is in no small part thanks to Berkman’s prose, which is written with the easygoing sports-writer voice with folksy turns of phrases. The story goes as expected: initial bouts of awkwardness between the old timers and newcomers are soon overcome as they develop an informal sisterhood forged through the shared experience of practicing, traveling, eating, and playing together. The magic of ice hockey overcomes.

The story of the players’ cultural identity as Koreans is as important a thread in Team as ice hockey. The joint Korean women’s ice hockey team featured every conceivable way of connecting to Korean-ness. Many of the players were simply born as Koreans and remained so. But Team also features mixed heritage Koreans like Randi, adoptees like Marissa who left the country as an infant, second-generation Korean immigrants who downplayed their Korean identity to fit into the mainstream society, and even a blond, blue-eyed Sarah Murray who previously had no connection with Korea but came to regard the country as her second home. Team shows how those with a small foothold to the Korean identity gradually bought into their Korean-ness and bonded with their teammates, as their team slowly improved. Berkman, himself a Korean American adoptee, recounts each Korean woman’s rediscovery of their identity with knowing sensitivity.

So far, so good. It’s the comforting story we have read many times over, about how sports can overcome everything and re-affirming cultural identity can only be an unmitigated good. But as North Korean players enter the picture in the second half, Team takes a turn. At the time, the world celebrated this joinder as it expected the same comforting story to continue. From the inside, however, Team shows that the actual events unfolded somewhat differently.

Korean women's ice hockey team shortly after the match against Sweden, Feb. 20, 2018
The banner in the background says: "We are one." (source)

North Korean players join the team only three weeks before the Olympics, not nearly enough time to form a cohesive team. From skills perspective, the North Korean players cannot measure up—yet some of the South Korean players who prepared for years to play in the Olympics had to be cut from the team to make room for the North Koreans. Regardless of good intentions, the politics surrounding the merger was ignorant and disrespectful to the athletes. Do Jong-hwan, South Korea’s Minister of Culture and Sports, absurdly claimed that more players wouldn’t affect the team’s performance because hockey had so many in-game substitutions. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon said the quite part out loud when he said: “Speaking honestly, the women’s ice hockey team is not going to win a medal during the Olympics, is it?” The team became a spectacle for reasons entirely unrelated to their performance on the ice. The international media hounded the players, while dignitaries barged into the locker room for photo ops.

Sure, there are some “sports can overcome” moments, like an anecdote about how the South Korean players integrated the North Korean players into the team by building a shared dictionary of hockey terms. But a handful of those moments are not enough to dispel the question of what the addition of North Korean players achieved, if any. Two years since the Winter Olympics, the inter-Korean relationship is mostly back to where it was before the Games. North Korea is not close to denuclearizing, and South Korean public’s enthusiasm for inter-Korean exchanges is waning. The athletes of the two Koreas are once again separated and unlikely to meet one another for quite some time. Even during the Olympics, they used separate lodging facilities and Pyongyang’s minders accompanied the North Korean athletes at all times. Arguably, the most Berkman could muster up as an instance of teammates from the two Koreas bonding is an anecdote about a South Korean player showing photos on her smartphone to her North Korean teammate. That's a nice enough story, but a small beer if you were looking for an example of how sports can heal deep divisions.

What if the North Korean players were given two years to train together and form a more intimate team, as the diaspora Koreans did with Korea-born players? But we all know that could not have happened for the 2018 Winter Olympics. This, then, raises some very uncomfortable questions that we are not used to asking when we read what was supposed to be a feel-good sports story. Are we sure about this magical power of sports? Are we sure having a shared heritage means anything? Is the Olympics really about athleticism and sportsmanship, when so much of it revolves around the pageantry of nationalism? What’s so great about being Korean, when that identity turns you into an instrument of politics that occur beyond your view or control? Although Team is an easy and engaging read, these questions are not the stuff for an after-school special.

In fact, the most important chapters of Team may be the penultimate ones, describing what happened after the Olympics. In the part where most sports movies would fade into a black screen and put up nice narrative sentences about what a great life each athlete had after the Games, the book goes onto show how Korean women’s hockey team staged a strike just one month after the Olympics to demand a better treatment, especially in relation to the men’s hockey team. After going through the Olympics as a pawn of politics, the women’s ice hockey team was acting to gain agency.

The increased agency translated to results on the ice. After going 0-5 with a cumulative score of 28 to 2 to finish in the last place in the Winter Games, the Korean women’s ice hockey team went 3-1 to win the silver in their division in the World Championships held in Italy just two months after the Olympics. As Team tells it, many of the players felt the World Championship was the more memorable experience than the Olympics. “We were playing for us and we were playing only for us,” said Danelle Im, a Korean Canadian player from Toronto—revealing why the players felt the World Championship was more meaningful, and hinting at the answer for all the thorny questions about sports and heritage.

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  1. If you can't see the problem, you will never find the solution.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


  3. Mike2/09/2020 9:52 AM
    I'd guess the book doesn't continue the story up to 2018, when the players apparently decided that Sarah Murray wasn't up to the job and demanded her dismissal. The most successful example of North-South sporting cooperation was the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, where the women's combined team won the gold medal. In the intervening 3 decades, the winning doubles team of Hyun Jung-hwa (South) and Li Bun-hui (North) have never been allowed to speak to each other again.

  4. When is your Parasite post coming? I've been checking in here every day for a week, hoping to read your take on the film and its success, and what this means for the future of the Korean Wave, and whether I should start taking Korean lessons.

  5. I remember when the President of Korea gave honorary citizenship to Hines Ward, former Pittsburgh Steelers football player who is half black, half Korean, after he received the Superbowl MVP. Korean politicians will go to extreme lengths to avoid international mockery or make their nation-state look perfect.


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