Breaking Down Cultural Barriers at the Olympic Games

Image of a bobsled going down a track

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are well underway, and the games have brought us not only the best from athletes around the world, but a chance to peek into South Korean culture, and to also see some of the cross-cultural connections that the athletes make between each other.

The participation of North Korea in the games has been the top story for weeks. The majority of North Korean athletes to join the joint Korea team belong to the women’s hockey team. Notably, this has caused a language divide. Though both teams speak Korean, the variations in the language between the two countries has led to difficulties in communication. According to VOA, “Language experts say about one-third of the everyday words used in the two countries are different.” In order to combat this issue of cross-cultural communication, the team created its own team dictionary. South Koreans use many English terms for certain aspects of hockey terminology, as well as in general in day-to-day speech, whereas the North Koreans have created Korean words for these terms and avoid English altogether: “For example, South Korean hockey players use the English word ‘pass,’ but their North Korean teammates say ‘yeol lak’ or ‘communication.’ North Koreans say ‘nahl gay soo’ meaning ‘wing player.’ South Koreans call that position ‘wing,’ like in English. South Koreans say ‘block shot’ while North Koreans say ‘buhduh make,’ or ‘stretching to block.’”

The cultural crossover isn’t limited to just North and South Korea, however. The Korean hockey and figure skating teams both feature Korean-American athletes. The U.S. and Korean teams feature a pair of sisters, each playing for a different country. Hannah Brandt has traveled to Pyeongchang with the U.S. team, while her adopted sister Marissa is playing for the Korean team after being scouted by a coach from the South Korean team. According to USA Today, “After that initial tryout, Marissa got her dual citizenship. She’d long forgotten what she’d learned in Korean camp, but she’s one of six players from the United States or Canada and that helped ease the transition to a culture she didn’t know.” One of those other players from the U.S. is Grace Lee, who has her own amazing story of her journey to the Olympics. After being born with a birth defect that affected her feet, her parents encouraged her to try skating, and began to play hockey. Eventually, she found her way to a private school where she could continue to play and improve, and an alumnus of the school quickly recruited her to join the South Korean national team as well.

Connections occur even between athletes from countries often viewed from the outside as the deepest of rivals. American luger Chris Mazdzer, this year’s silver medalist and America’s first ever men’s singles luge medalist, found help from an unlikely source: a fellow luger from the Russian team. According to the Washington Post, “Mazdzer revealed Monday that one of his Russian rivals offered the use of his sled. The Russian racer felt his own Olympic hopes were fading, Mazdzer said, but he wanted to help the American veteran do his best.” While he did not end up using the athlete’s sled, the gesture itself stands out as an amazingly selfless act.

For two weeks every two years, the Olympics offer a chance for the world to come together and root for athletes who have worked their whole lives to compete and participate in sports’ biggest stage. In the world of sports, we expect and anticipate tension, rivalry, and competitiveness. But the Olympics show us that sport can bring out the best in each other as well. Athletes support each other and root for their rivals, who are often athletes they have competed against time and time again in competition. And fans find athletes from other countries to rally behind as well, whether or not it’s the Jamaican women’s bobsled team, or the Tongan martial artist-turned-cross country skier.

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