GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - North Korea’s attack on a South Korean island in one of the worst military flareups between the neighbors in recent years has cast a long shadow over Korean officials and athletes competing at the Asian Games.
Just hours after North Korea rained dozens of shells on Yeonpyeong island, around 120 km west of the capital Seoul, destroying buildings and killing two soldiers, South Korean sports officials reacted with alarm and said the strikes could weigh on its athletes competing in the regional event.
“Of course I‘m worried about the situation in my country,” a Korean athletics official told Reuters.
“No more bombing,” added Park Won-hah, a doctor for Korean athletes inside Guangzhou’s Aoti Main Stadium.
The Olympic Council of Asia declined to make any immediate statement: “It’s not a sport-related issue,” said a spokesman.
While sport has been a softer arena for the two Koreas to bolster relations away from thorny high politics, the two sides failed to march together under a unification flag at the opening ceremony of the Games in a seemingly frosty start.
On the field of sport, however, there have been encouraging moments between the two rivals.
A women’s football semi-final between North and South Korea was won by the north in a tough-fought but fair contest earlier in the week, while Tuesday, as news of the North Korean attack broke, two archers from the north and south vied for gold in separate semi-finals in the individual archery contest.
Traditionally one of South Korea’s strongest sports, female archer Yun Ok-hee’s unerring aim saw her eventually go on to clinch gold while North Korea’s Kwon Un-sil picked up bronze.
Speaking after her win, Yun said she rarely mixed sport with politics but appealed for peace amid escalating tensions.
“In archery, the North Korean and South Korean athletes are good friends. We get along very well,” said the archer who shoots with a signature pink bow and an “I love Hello Kitty” vest.
“I cheered for North Korea in the bronze medal match and was very happy when she won,” added Yun of Kwon who defeated India’s Deepika Kumari to take bronze.
Kwon, however, appeared visibly put out with questions on the military attack. “I only care about sports,” she told Reuters while casting nervous glances at her coach. “No comment.”
At a gold medal wrestling bout a small contingent of North Korean supporters waved national flags and cheered on 55kg freestyle wrestler Yang Kyong-il. Most refused to speak to the media, although one 61-year-old criticized the military aggression.
“I don’t support (the attack). That is all I can say.”
Others refused to succumb to the rising tide of pessimism.
“Sports is a good way to communicate to each other,” said Kim Sung-chang, a South Korean wrestling official at the gymnasium after the North’s Yang had just clinched a silver. “In the future, I think sports may help unify the North and the South.”
Writing by James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Ian Ransom and Sabrina Mao; editing by Justin Palmer