With the unified Korean flag in the background, the unified women’s hockey team leaves the ice after its final loss. The team included players from both North and South Korea. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

The coach with the hardest job at these Olympics left in tears. They were happy ones. Sarah Murray, who led the unified Korean women’s hockey team, isn’t one for superfluous emotion. Though only 29, she is a hardened hockey lifer, the daughter of a former NHL coach and a two-time collegiate national champion while playing for Minnesota Duluth. For her to cry, she must be genuinely moved.

Last week, the wet stuff wouldn’t stop. As her Korean team — the biggest experiment and most hopeful symbol of the PyeongChang Games — concluded play, she let out all the feelings she had kept bunched as tightly as her signature ponytail: her pride directing a team instructed to play together at the last minute to send a message; her amazement over the bond the players from South and North Korea developed in a short time; her respect for how they kept the focus on sport over spectacle.

The unified Koreans lost all five games here. They were outscored 28-2. Still, they gave the large, spirited and curious crowds something to appreciate.

“When I was put in charge of a unified team that was decided upon as a political statement just ahead of the Olympics, I didn’t know how I was going to unite the team,” Murray said. “But I treated the South and North Korean players equally, and the players were totally committed. The players were the real heroes.”

This is a fitting place to lower the curtain on the 2018 Winter Games. Before they began, they were declared the Peace Olympics by organizers and charged with the mission to turn up the volume on an innate quality of the Olympic movement: Remind a competitive world how to behave. Live for 16 days in an idyllic bubble.

We needed it. We were desperate for it. And somehow, despite the political sensitivity and some clumsy moments and continued U.S.-North Korea tension, PyeongChang succeeded in providing hope.

It succeeded because the athletes represented the best of us. It was only going to succeed if the athletes were authentic examples of those civil aspirations. It can’t be forced. It can’t be faked. That’s the magic of sports; in the heat of competition, truths are revealed. By simply being themselves, the participants made the Peace Olympics turn into more than a naive theme.

“Our games weren’t a political statement to us,” Murray said. “They were just games.”

Murray has been asked to dedicate at least two more years to improving the Korean hockey program. She has agreed to stay, but this team won’t remain intact. And she can’t replicate the experience. The coach and her 23 players always will have this time, though. It was an incredible time. There were no victories, but as they entertained, leaders from South and North Korea seemed to improve their frigid relations. It’s hard to know whether you can trust it to last. Still, the effort was a positive step.

“I don’t know what to say when we have to say goodbye after the closing ceremony,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a sad goodbye.”


Sarah Murray embraces North Korean coach Pak Chul-ho after their unified team lost to Sweden in a classification game. (Yonhap/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock/Yonhap/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

I feel that way about the entire 2018 Games. It’s going to be sad to leave this bubble. It’s a place where, at the end of a cross-country skiing race, four men from different countries can wait for the last-place finisher to cross the line. And then all five — representing Colombia, Tonga, Morocco, Portugal and Mexico — can celebrate wildly what they accomplished despite not being from winter wonderlands, what they showed to all people from “exotic countries,” as one coach said.

It’s a place where three fierce rivals — Shaun White, Ayumu Hirano and Scotty James — can stage one of the Games’ closest and most dramatic competitions in the men’s snowboarding halfpipe final, then embrace, and in recognition of how they all pushed each other to greatness, say the same words at once: “Thank you.”

It’s a place where Japanese speedskater Nao Kodaira can win the 500-meter final, become the first woman from her country to win Olympic speedskating gold and then share the moment with Korean silver medalist Lee Sang-hwa. They hugged. They shared flags. It became a touching moment that the home-biased crowd at Gangneung Oval could cheer as if Korea had won.

Asked afterward why she chose to engage Lee, Kodaira said: “Sport can make the world one together. It’s simple.”

There were plenty of more memorable athletic feats, provided by bigger stars who will never be forgotten. There were also embarrassing moments, including more Russian doping drama. But overall, the PyeongChang Games were triumphant. The organizers’ optimism came to life.

“Sport cannot lead the policy in the political area, but we are aiming for a Peace Olympic Games,” declared Lee Hee-beom, the president of the 2018 PyeongChang organizing committee, before these Olympics.

At a time of great pessimism about the world, a time of heightened concern about nuclear warfare, it was nice to live in this aspirational bubble for more than two weeks.

And now we return to the real world, where the problems remain and the resolutions are, at best, a work in progress. I wish we weren’t about to exit this bubble. I wish the bubble wouldn’t burst as soon as we leave.

But the hope of the PyeongChang Games will continue to exist. They will be examples that can be referred to for weeks, months and years to come. Sports can only do so much, but there’s always hope. And hope is a most powerful thing.

The enduring image of these Olympics occurred during the Opening Ceremonies when the two Korean hockey players, one from the North and one from the South, ran up those bright and glowing steps, torch in their hands. They barely had time to practice, but they had to find a rhythm. They couldn’t drop it en route to delivering it to figure skater Kim Yu-na. They didn’t drop it, and that’s the message: When you trust in humanity, the humans teach us about grace. Perhaps more of us will learn to run in sync without dropping the torch.