GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - With no gaggle of North Korean cheerleaders to spur them on, South Korea’s men’s ice hockey team are warmly embracing a lack of media attention as they head towards their first game of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Thursday.
They are enjoying being in the shadow of the unified Korean women’s team, the first North-South combination to compete at any Games. The women have drawn packed crowds. Even their training sessions pull dozens of local and foreign journalists.
At the women’s first game, South Korean President Moon Jae-in showed up along with the North Korean leader’s sister as well as Olympic chief Thomas Bach and the North Korean cheerleaders.
By comparison, the South Korean men, who have not been asked to form a unified team, are overlooked. Most visitors to their training sessions are cleaners and Olympic volunteers.
“I don’t care. Let’s fly under the radar. Better for us. Whatever. You know (for the women) to have that attention is great from the media because it promotes our sport, and the fans get to read about it,” head coach Jim Paek said.
“That takes one distraction away. So it’s perfect for us,” he said after a practice session on Wednesday.
In the “mixed zone”, where athletes mingle with journalists and give interviews, only about six local reporters milled about on Wednesday waiting for the players and coach to wander past.
The scene outside the stadium in Gangneung was more animated, as a person dressed as the Games mascot, a cartoon tiger, chased a group of giggling girls.
“It’s natural that there’s all this attention on the joint team,” forward Shin Sang-hoon said. “To get that kind of attention, we just need to excel in our performance.”
The South Korean men’s team are ranked 21st in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, and are not considered medal contenders. They are due to play medal hopefuls Czech Republic and Switzerland before confronting top-ranked Canada.
“I don’t think we feel left out,” defenseman Eric Regan said. “We’re kind of laying in the weeds right now, not too many people are talking about us, so we feel comfortable in that position, too,” said Regan, one of six Canadians who have become naturalized South Koreans on the team.
Fellow Canadian-South Korean Alex Plante said the men’s team had a “completely different dynamic” but remained open to the idea of having to one day form a unified men’s team.
“I don’t know how the girls feel about it, we haven’t had much time to communicate about it,” Plante said.
“For something like that I think everybody can agree that we’re all for peace.”
Editing by Mark Bendeich