Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira
Lee Sang-hwa comforted by Nao Kodaira, with bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova in the background

The final race had completed.

The South Korean champion, Lee Sang-hwa had the weight of the world as she sought her third consecutive gold in the 500-meter speed skating sprint in front of her home fans, but just fell short to Nao Kodaira of Japan. Circling the oval in tears, Lee came upon her rival, her Japanese friend, Kodaira, who put her arm around her shoulder, and created a lasting and powerful image of sportsmanship and friendship – words not often associated with Japan-Korean relations.

Koreans may have been celebrating the unification Olympics, waving the blue-on-white flags showing a single Korea, but the Japanese government wasn’t pleased, officially protesting the use of a flag that included a tiny dot to the east of the Korean peninsula. The Japanese government calls that area Takeshima and believe it is a part of Japan, but it is also called Dokdo in Korean and in fact controlled by South Korea.

It was the Korean’s turn to be offended when NBC analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo, covering the opening ceremonies at the 2018 Winter Games, described Japan as “a country which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, but every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.” The analyst was removed from the broadcast, but the pain remained.

That is until gold medalist Kodaira and silver medalist Lee came together.

The day after their battle on the ice, the two were huddled together near the medal awards stand, cheerfully awaiting their medals. They decided to kill time by going live on social media platform, Instagram, for twenty minutes. People then realized that Kodaira and Lee were indeed friends. In a comfortable mix of Korean, Japanese and English, the two fastest women speed skaters in the world gaily exchanged wishes from their fans, talked about food, music and how they would celebrate when they received their medals.

As you can see in the video of the Instagram feed, they are reading and translating the comments for each other. Early in the broadcast, Lee put her arm around Kodaira and said they were “tomodachi” – friends. We learned that Kodaira likes the Korean dish bulgogi, and that Lee’s birthday was only a few days later (February 25). She made a point to repeat that – “Nao, my birthday this Sunday. Presento onegai shimasu.”

Absolutely, this exchange was one of the sweetest moments of these Olympic Games.

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Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 2
Korean women’s hockey forward Park Jong-ah (2nd from L) attempts a shot against Swedish goalie Sara Grahn during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

After their shellacking to #6 Switzerland on Saturday, February 10, the women of Team Korea took on #5 Sweden on Monday, February 12.

The score was the same: 8-0.

And yet, to me, the level of play was different. Team Korea wasn’t a mass of five players on the ice scrambling around their zone desperately trying to keep up, as they were against the Swiss. This time, they looked a little bit more in control.

They weren’t able to deal with a Swedish offense that was stronger, faster and more skilled – thus the eight goals surrendered. Sweden had 50 shots on goal, two short of what Switzerland had, so the Korean goaltender must have felt she was stuck in an endless loop of shooting drills.

However, Monday’s Team Korea was more confident on offense. Their passes were quicker and crisper. They hesitated less and shot more. And they were visibly better on the power play, passing quickly, creating space, and making shots. In the game against Switzerland, they managed 8 shots, almost all of them wafflers and slow rollers. Against Sweden, Team Korea rifled shots on net, and excited the crowd into oohs and aahs with more than a few nifty deflections that barely missed the net.

Women's Ice Hockey_Sweden vs Korea 1
Anna Borgqvist of Sweden (L) and Kim Hee-won of Korea battle for a loose puck during the teams’ Group B game in the women’s hockey tournament at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 12, 2018. (Yonhap)

Team Korea had 19 shots on goal, each one of them building the anticipation. The Korean play-by-play announcer got so caught up in the possibility, he kept shouting “Shoot! Shoot!” when a shot looked like it was lining up. But it’s not just the announcer. The entire nation is in a state of suspended anticipation.

Korea takes on Japan on Wednesday, which should be an exciting match just for the natural rivalry the two countries have. Japan also lost to Sweden and Switzerland, but their losses were close: 2-1 against Sweden and 3-1 against Switzerland. The speedy Japanese team will be looking to win their first against the overmatched Koreans.

Forget winning. For Korea, the goal is a goal. Just one.

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.

 

Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.

Kim Song I
Kim Song I of North Korea
The woman in red from Japan is ranked 6th in the world. The woman in blue from North Korea is ranked 27th.

Kasumi Ishikawa of Yamaguchi, Japan was born to play table tennis. Her parents were both competitive table tennis players, and her sister is a table tennis professional. Kim Song I is from North Korea, and likely a beneficiary of considerable state resources to get her to the top levels of her sport. And when you watch table tennis at this level, you can see it’s not just a leisure cruise game – it is indeed a high performance sport.

With balls zipping at top speeds of 100 kph on the surface the size of a dinner table for six, supreme hand-eye coordination and strength are needed to receive and send the tiny plastic ball careening to an exact spot on the table, despite the sharpest of angles and heaviest of spins.

Ishikawa raced out to a 9-3 lead in the first game before winning 11-7. She crushed Kim again in the second game by the same score. Ishikawa’s top-spin slams were often too much for Kim, whose returns often went long.

It was 6:30 am Japan time Monday morning when I got on the machine at the gym, switched on the monitor to see what sport NHK would be broadcasting live, and this was the match. I thought, wow, Japan vs North Korea – that’s a compelling match in any competition. After all, these two countries….well, they don’t like each other. At that point, as I started my run, Ishikawa and Kim were tied 2 games apiece, heading into match 5.

While Kim had an early lead, Ishikawa eventually climbed back and was able to win game 5. When she won, she wasn’t as happy as I expected. That’s when I learned you need to win 4 out 7, not 3 of 5. Both players talked with their coaches, girding themselves for one more, maybe two more games.

My work-out done, I had to leave the gym. But I had assumed that Ishikawa would go on to win. And most experts probably also thought Ishikawa would as well. Apparently the first two rounds in the Olympic singles table tennis tournament are played by lower ranked players, while the seeded players like Ishikawa get a bye in those rounds. In other words, while Kim had to fight her way to the third round, Ishikawa was playing her first match. And apparently, in other matches, the top seeds mowed down the competition, most of them winning 4 games to none. The top seeded woman, Ding Ning of China, won her third-round debut in only 11 minutes.

TABLE TENNIS-OLY-2016-RIO
Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa reacts after losing to North Korea’s Kim Song I in their women’s singles qualification round table tennis match at the Riocentro venue during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Juan Mabromata
As I learned when I got home that night, the match between Ishikawa and Kim took an amazing 64 minutes. The contest was not only physically and mentally exhausting for the two athletes, it was a display of distinctively different styles. Ishikawa pummeled away with top-spin forehand smashes, while Kim endlessly defended with deft back-spin returns. Back and forth, back and forth they went – at times rallying for exquisitely long periods of nerve-wracking madness.

In the final game, with Kim leading 7-4, Ishikawa stopped playing. Her right leg was visibly cramping and Ishikawa was looking for an official stoppage of play, probably for treatment. The referee insisted she play on. However, the momentum had already switched to Kim, and Kim at this point was returning everything, and I mean everything. And the unforced errors for Ishikawa began to pile up.

In the end, after a suffocatingly tense hour, Song pulled off the upset, defeating Ichikawa four games to three: 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 11-9, 11-8.

Outside of Japan and table tennis fans, I’m sure nobody noticed. But I did. And it was an amazing match.

The Japan’s Women’s Volleyball Team has legendary status, medaling in five straight Olympics from 1964 to 1984, excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. They fell out of contention over the 1990s and the “oughts”, but regained form taking bronze at the 2012 London Games.

But there the Japanese team was on the evening of May 18, losing significantly in the fifth and final set to Thailand, a nation that has never sent a volleyball team to the Olympics. This was the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Women’s Rio 2016 Qualifier, and it was being played in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo, the site of Japan’s gold-medal winning performance in the Olympic debut of women’s volleyball.

Japan vs thailand volleyball qualifier
Erika Araki (center) spikes the ball during Japan’s 3-2 Olympic qualifying win

Thailand was tasting it, they could see it – victory. They were up 10-5 in the fifth and final set. (Start watching the above video at the 2 hour 54-minute mark.) Japan served, starting an incredible rally. Thailand received a jump serve, it was returned to the setter waiting at the front of the net, who laid up an easy hit for a Thai striker who smashed it across court, right at a Japanese player who sent the ball out of bounds. The Thai players start slapping high fives. But a Japanese had lunged out of bounds to save the ball and send it across the net to the surprised Thais. Another Thai spike. This time, an amazing one-handed save by the Japanese. The announcer is incredulous. “Has it gone? It’s still in! It’s still in! I can’t believe it.” Back and forth it goes as the Thais re-group. And they have a chance, but their spike sails out. There’s a challenge, but no Japanese fingers touch the ball, and Japan climbs one point closer, 10-6.

They call it momentum. And one could sense it slipping Japan’s way.

Thailand managed to win the next two points to go up 12-6. A poor serve from Thailand made it 12-7. The announcer said, “Can Japan get some Harry Potter magic here and get a few points.” And that’s when it all started to fall apart for the Southeast Asian nation. If they win the set and the match, there’s a very real chance they would eventually qualify for their first Olympics in Rio. But they were on Japan’s home court and they were feeling the pressure.

Japan gets another point to claw closer to 12-8. It’s unclear why watching the broadcast of the match, but Thai coach, Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai, was upset, and challenged the call. The referee from Mexico, Luis Gerardo Macias, denied the challenge, leaving the Thai coach in a huff. Kiattipong calls a time out. When the time out ends and the Thai players go back onto the court, Macias calls the Thai players over to explain something. Macias raises a red card, and suddenly, the score is 12-9. You can hear Kiattipong say in surprise, “aray wa?”, which is a crude way of saying in Thai, “what the heck happened?”

Macias explaining the first penalty to Thai team captain
Macias explaining the first penalty to the Thai team captain

And that is a good question.

But life quickly goes on. Japan serves, the Thai player lets it go, and the ball falls safely inside the lines for the match’s only ace. It’s now 12-10. “Nerves must be jangling on Thailand’s side,” says the announcer. With the crowd roaring, Japan spikes to another point, and are behind by one, 12-11. Kiattipong calls another timeout. Japan serves, takes Thailand’s attack, and blocks for the tying point. It’s now tied, 12-12. Japan serves, sets up for a spike which the Thai defenders can’t handle. 13-12 Japan. That’s seven points in a row.

You can see Kiattipong prowling the sidelines in disbelief. The camera switches to Macias, who has an expression that essentially says, “I told him to shut up and he won’t shut up.” Suddenly, Macias indicates another penalty, and Japan is amazingly given another point by

 Japan react to their suprise victory over South Africa in their opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Japan react to their suprise victory over South Africa in their opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

All I know is that rugby will be an Olympic sport in Rio for the first time. But they’re calling Japan’s last-minute upset of South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in England as the greatest Rugby World Cup shocker ever. Here is how The Guardian saw it.