Australian Olympians part of living Korean history
24 February 2018
PYEONGCHANG 2018: Whenever our athletes compete in Olympic competition, they become part of history. On Friday, five of our athletes travelled two hours north of PyeongChang to experience another history.
And it was a living history that has continued since 1953 when an armistice was declared, ceasing the bloody conflict of the Korean War.
The war began between the North and South in 1950 and while fighting ceased in 1953, technically the two Koreas are still at war.
Danielle Scott, David Morris, Harry Laidlaw, Rohan Chapman-Davis and James Matheson travelled to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to witness first-hand the stand-off that continues to this day on the mountainous border on the Korean Peninsula’s east coast.
The trip began with a series of checkpoints, soldiers swarming and searching vehicles before requiring phones to be handed in as our Olympians made their way to the closest possible point separating the two Koreas.
As they gazed across the DMZ, their attention was drawn to a machine gun nest tunnelled into the mountains on the northern side.
This was the coalface of a 65 year-old stand-off and yet, our young athletes were part of history as talk of peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas was a feature of these Games. The Koreas marching under a common banner at the Opening Ceremony and competing as a combined team in women’s ice hockey.
Alpine skier Harry Laidlaw, like all his travelling companions, wasn’t born when the Korean War began but he understood the significance of these Games.
“It’s like nothing I have ever experienced. It’s a different side of the world. It’s cool. The Opening Ceremony was super special, like very unifying, everyone coming together.”
James Matheson was captured by the same feeling.
“It feels wonderful. All the Olympic Games bring countries together and this one can be taking even a step further than that, to be bringing people towards peace. To be part of that is a really special thing.”
Whether the 2018 Winter Olympic Games can achieve that lofty goal remains to be seen and certainly the bizarre reality of the DMZ wasn’t lost on our Olympians.
The South Koreans blasting loud music through speakers facing the north. Our group experienced the strange sounds of Phantom of the Opera, sung in Korean, being hurled across the divide as part of the psychological warfare against the North. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s piece was followed by K-Pop anthems and who knows what else. The music was designed to annoy.
Aerial skier David Morris summed it up perfectly as he looked at the fortified positions on each side of the border.
“It’s sad and it’s interesting at the same time and it reminds us of how lucky we are. It’s confronting.
“We were at the observation deck and we can see the North Korean military and we can see this guy shadow boxing against the wall there. And here’s these two towers five hundred metres apart and north and south can hear each other on a clear night.
Along with his Olympic colleagues, mogul skier Rohan Chapman-Davies observed the strange mixture of military stand-off, cold war tourism (they were selling Korean fast food and souvenirs) while marrying that with his experiences pack in PyeongChang.
“Last night at the short track the North Korean spectators were cheering on. They started a Mexican wave and the whole crowd gets into it. It’s been really good to witness as a spectator and we will see what happens in the future.”
In spite of all the tension of looking out at machine gun nests across the border, South Korean troops constantly checking numbers, passports and the contents of vehicles, you got the sense that the greatest threat to the Australian winter Olympians was not the cold war stand-off but the local speciality of pan cooked silk worm larvae being served at the foot of the observation tower.
Let’s just say some took the plunge - others didn’t.
The environment was a contradiction of tourism opportunity where you might pose for a selfie or two mixed with the reality of two countries at war still, not yet able lay aside their differences.
To complete their tour, the group visited a Korean war museum where they learned 340 Australian troops died in the Korean conflict back in the 1950s.
The South Koreans have paid tribute to all those United Nations troops who fought in the conflict, including our Australian soldiers.
Having observed that tribute, Danielle Scott summed up her feelings as a young Australian who felt something special in the wind in PyeonChang.
“I hope it’s the start of a new movement and we can just look on it as the old days.”