Canada’s all-time leading ice hockey scorer and a four-time Olympic gold medallist, Hayley Wickenheiser discusses meeting the Unified Korean Women’s Ice Hockey Team at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and her subsequent trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As the Olympic Movement celebrates the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, she also considers how sport can break down barriers and bring people together.

The power of sport
Since 2014, I have been working as a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission with the aim of using sport as a way of breaking down barriers and fostering positive outcomes. We represent the athletes of the world in terms of life after sport, advocating for their needs, representing their voice at the IOC, as well as ensuring the health and wellbeing of athletes.

As such, I travelled to PyeongChang to take in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. I was looking forward to getting a chance to meet with the athletes; being in the Olympic Village, we were able to have a dialogue with them and hear the things they want to be changed. Just having the chance to be face-to-face with athletes was really important.

A unifying force
I actually ran into the Unified Korean Women’s Ice Hockey Team on the beach while I was out walking. It was an opportunity to talk to head coach Sarah Murray and to both teams in a very informal, unplanned setting, which was actually better. Maybe it was a little frustrating for the South Koreans to suddenly have their team turned upside down, but at the same time, they’re part of world history and as time moves forward, they may be seen as a catalyst for peace, or as the starting point for a lot of great dialogue that has since gone on.

I wanted them to know that this was about them as much as it was about world peace or anything else. It was a really endearing situation and one where we were all watching it a little apprehensively to begin with, but in the end it worked out well. They were part of history, part of something that is much bigger than themselves and will look back on that experience very fondly in 20 years.

Then, in March, I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I wanted to show the athletes that the feeling didn’t die at the Olympic Winter Games, that people cared about them and about their country being part of the Olympic Movement long after the Games. I ran ice sessions for the men’s national team and for the women’s national team, and met with sports officials, all with the goal of potentially bringing a team to my hockey festival, Wickfest.

Sport for peace
The IOC has announced that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will participate in the next two Olympic Games, so you can already see how much of an effect sport can have. What I realised is that people are people. I think that if we can use sport as a way to build bridges and to show that there’s a way forward through sport, we can make a lot of progress for peace.

I didn’t go there to broker world peace, but I do believe that sport builds bridges, it builds dialogue, and that’s what I really wanted to accomplish by being there. When you step on the rink for a hockey game, for example, you don’t even need to speak to communicate. All you need to do is play a game. If you’re playing with your emotions and energy levels, you automatically get a chance to know what someone is like. Let’s work together to find some common ground, and sport is that common ground.