For a few days in February, they will be the most fascinating, scrutinized athletes in the world.
Ryom Tae Ok, 18, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, will be faces of a nation that few on Earth know or understand: North Korea.
On Jan. 20, the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of 22 North Korean athletes for the PyeongChang Games, to be a part of a joint delegation with South Korea. That included Ryom and Kim, pairs skaters who were allowed in despite missing the registration deadline.
North and South Korea will march together at the Opening Ceremony under the name “Korea,” and a Korean folk song will play as a shared anthem. It offers a glimmer of hope that a thaw in the harsh geopolitical climate of the Korean Peninsula is underway. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un loves his sports, and especially figure skating, so the chance to show off his top athletes on the world stage may provide a window to greater understanding between his closed-off nation and the rest of the planet.
But will we learn much about these two skaters? It turns out, one North American already has.
Bruno Marcotte, coach of the Canadian ice skating team, saw Ryom and Kim for the first time a couple of years ago at an international event. (Unlike virtually all North Koreans, the skaters can leave the country to compete.)
“Whenever there’s a new team, you get curious,” he says, “especially a team from North Korea. OK, who are these guys?”
Then last year, he saw them again at the Asian Games in Japan. The pair won bronze. “I was blown away by how much better they got,” he says.
Marcotte, himself a former skater for Team Canada, decided to approach the two and congratulate them. Through a translator, he told them how good they looked. He told them he would be cheering for them.
“They were very surprised,” he recalls.
The next time Marcotte saw them was last March at Worlds in Helsinki. This time, the North Koreans approached him. They were fans of the Canadian world champion pairs team of Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford. They wanted to know if it would be possible to visit Montreal to train.
“My first reaction was I saw the potential of those skaters and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure!’ ” Marcotte says. “If it’s possible, that would be great. As a coach, it’s a great challenge to work with a younger team. And it’s always good for my own team when you bring a good team in. Everybody wins.”
The biggest challenges would be off the ice. Visas would have to be figured out. Marcotte didn’t even know exactly when in June they would arrive. The skaters would need a place to stay – never easy or cheap during the summer in Montreal – and it would have to be fairly close to the training rink. After all, it wasn’t like Ryom and Kim had drivers’ licenses or an Uber account. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to put North Korean skaters who spoke no English (or French) on a public bus. They had cell phones, but a Canadian SIM card wouldn’t work. The coach finally found an apartment and someone from the Canadian team arranged daily pickup and transportation.
Then there was the culture shock. North Korea is literally off the grid, so the bounty and bumpiness of capitalism is only a rumor to those who live there. The skaters were taken aback and confused, for example, when they saw homeless people. Through a translator they would ask Marcotte, “Why aren’t they going to work?”
The flip side of that, of course, is the opportunity. Instead of retreating to their apartment during down time, Ryom and Kim went shopping. (The International Skating Union website lists Kim’s interests as music, dance and reading, while Ryom’s are football, reading and music.)
Marcotte says he “saw shopping bags all the time.” And the skaters were intrigued by the idea of skating as a hobby, which so many Canadians do.
“For them that was weird,” Marcotte says. “You skate to train. It was an interesting conversation.”
On the ice, for both the visitors and the hosts, it was a nice meld of new and familiar. Marcotte worked with them on the height of their jumps, and his sister, Julie, even choreographed a routine they may use in competition in PyeongChang. (They also skate to a Beatles song.) Marcotte is a positive coach, and he did whatever he could to encourage them rather than intimidate or berate them. That got a positive response.
“I really tried to focus on their speed,” he says, “getting height on their twist and on their throws. They know they’re good and they can skate with more confidence.”
So what about geopolitics? What about “Rocket Man” and “Fire and fury?” Like most of the rest of us, the coach and the skaters didn’t really want to go there.
“I would not ask questions,” Marcotte says. “For me and even them it was going to be all sport. We all have a passion for sport.”
It was clear, though, that the North Koreans had a great time in the West. They raved about how safe they felt and how nice everyone was. It was, for both sides, a special time. Marcotte says when he sees them next month in Korea he’ll be “nervous.” There will be a lot of attention, and doubtless a lot of pressure.
“I really care about those kids,” he says. “I really hope they had a good two months of training and I know the world will be watching and I really hope they skate to their potential.”
Even if they don’t, a coach from Montreal has already done a little bit to make the world a smaller, sweeter place.
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