“Hockey is Not Your Stuff”: The Racialized Athletic Identity of Korean Ice Hockey Players

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Candlelight rally in Korea (Photo from The Hankyoreh)

This article is revised from the paper: Park, D., Kristin E., B., (2016). Exploring the Racialized Athletic Identity of Korean Ice Hockey Players. Presented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Tampa, FL.

Which country is the most controversial across the world last few months? What do you think? My answer, without any hesitation, is South Korea. Sadly, there were enormous political corruptions between the presidency and Chaebol (a family-owned large cooperation in Korea, e.g., Samsung); as a result, Geun-Hye Park, a former president, was impeached and jailed for presidential power abuse. Since the corruption has been closely related to Korean sports system overall and the Pyeong-Chang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic, Koreans are seriously afraid of whether 2018 Pyeong-Chang Winter Olympic Games can be held successfully.

 

In addition to the political climate change in South Korea, the NHL’s decision terrifies not only Korean hockey fans, but also fans who are eager to see the Olympic hockey. The NHL announced that players are not going to South Korea in 2018. Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) and Korean Ice Hockey Association (KIHA) are facing huge frustrations because Men’s ice hockey is well-known for the most profitable event in the Winter Olympic Games. Rene Fasel, a president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), guaranteed a qualification of team Korea if the team makes 18th in the world ranking by 2017 without the Olympic qualification (In 2016, the IIHF approved auto-qualification to Korea as a hosting country).

 

To rapidly enhance a level of Korean hockey, team Korea has been recruiting White Caucasian athletes since 2013 (so far, seven players have obtained duo-nationalities between South Korea and Canada/US). In a sport history in Korea, seven imported players are the first case of athlete naturalization without Korean heritage; moreover, team Korea ice hockey has the most naturalized athlete in one discipline.

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Korean-Canadian/American players (Photo from News Chosun)

Canada feeds the sport of ice hockey with excellent Canadian hockey players. Maguire (1996) indicates that Canadian players contribute to enhancing a level of British hockey. Further, consider the case of Japanese hockey, where eight Japanese-Canadian players obtained Japanese citizenship to participate in the Olympic Games in 1998. Team Japan  performed well against France, Belarus, and Germany during the Olympic tournament in Nagano, 1998. Japanese scholars, on the flip side, criticized acquiring Canadian players only for the Olympics as a very short-sighted strategy because of the negative influence on the sustainable development of domestic athletes (Chiba, Ebihara, & Morino, 2001).

What other negative consequences arise from such situations? In addition to the sustainability of local hockey systems, internalized Whiteness is one that comes to mind. Whiteness is “a formation of racial order and construction of social identity that privileges and powers certain groups, not others” (Douglas, 2005). Ice hockey seems to be a racialized sport because it has been played mostly by White athletes (Allain, 2010), and players are raced (White), classed (middle-class), and gendered (men) (Robidoux, 2002). Therefore, in my research, I strove to understand the racialized athletic identity perception of the Korean ice hockey athletes, particularly the members of men’s Olympic team.

Korean hockey players have perceived White athletes as physically superior beings. The media can play a pivotal role in generating pervasive Whiteness, as media often frames White hockey players as big, powerful, and unbreakable bodies (Poniatowski & Whiteside, 2012). My research participants indicate that they see themselves as relatively mediocre athletes compared to Whites, just because of the physical differences. Although there is no clear scientific evidence, most of the Korean players mention about White players’ bones. They believe in that imported players have different bones, which are stronger than Korean players. While playing with imported players on team Korea, Korean players have internalized or naturalized, Whiteness. A participant says, “whenever I see any Whites on the street, sometimes I feel they should play hockey very well because they are Whites.” The disparate body size is the matter for Korean players.

In addition to the different innate physical condition, Korean players have perceived racialized organizational culture. Considering organizational culture in Korea, both the KOC and KIHA encompass racialized organizational cultures. Bonilla-Silva (1997) argues that when individuals receive different social rewards due to race or ethnicity, they are likely to feel discrimination. Korean ice hockey players believe that the KIHA overtly discriminates against Korean players because they feel they receive different social rewards in most circumstances. I was shocked when one of research participants said that White players went to the baseball stadium with their family during the Division IA IIHF World Championship tournament in Korea, and no one from the KIHA restrained their abnormal behavior. Since the organizational culture of the KIHA is overtly racialized, Korean players can easily feel institutionalized Whiteness.

So, how are Korean players trying to negotiate the Whiteness? The players indicate that they have perceived a glass ceiling. The KIHA has selected automatically White players, even when they were suffering from injuries. Furthermore, coaches guaranteed the naturalized players with sufficient ice time. In this manner, Korean players consider that they cannot compete with the naturalized players. Since Whiteness is pervasively institutionalized, the Korean players think that they cannot change the situation, apparently unfair competition, which they are facing as individuals. Consequently, the players have been competing against each other to be qualified for the Olympic team, not seven White players.

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Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics (Photo from EPIX)

I think there is an impregnable White Habitus. The White Habitus is “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that creates white’s racial tastes, perceptions and their view on racial matters” (Bonilla-Silva, Goar, & Embrick, 2006). In the sport of ice hockey, the NHL consistently generates a globalized White habitus. The NHL facilitates a particular racial taste in hockey through media (e.g., The Road to the NHL Winter Classic on EPIX, or The Leaf: Blueprint). The framed media leads Korean players to internalize racialized athletic identity. Eventually, they gave up on themselves being able to compete against the White athletes in this context. Due to institutionalized Whiteness in Korea, the players have a racial bias against imported players. Bonilla-Silva (1997) articulates racialized social system in his study Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation. He states that “Once social formation is racialized; its normal dynamics always include a racial component.” Aforementioned, the KIHA’ practices are racialized against the Korean athletes. Thus, the Korean players are encountering institutionalized discrimination and White supremacy, even in their home country.

Hockey is everyone’s sport, not just a particular group of people’s. Korean players, however, see themselves as mediocre athletes and perceive Whites as physically superior because of the internalized Whiteness and institutional discrimination. This Whiteness is covertly constructed from institutional sources and overtly absorbed by organizational culture. The NHL is the biggest and most influential institutional source. The NHL is generating White Habitus (i.e., racialized body image, stereotypes of ice hockey). Consequently, Whiteness has been internalized in Korean players and institutionalized in the organization.

What do you think?

References

Allain, K. A. (2011). Kid Crosby or Golden Boy: Sidney Crosby, Canadian national identity, and the policing of hockey masculinity. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(1), 3-22.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (1997). Rethinking racism: Toward a structural interpretation. American sociological review, 465-480.

 

Bonilla-Silva, E., Goar, C., & Embrick, D. G. (2006). When whites flock together: The social psychology of white habitus. Critical Sociology, 32(2-3), 229-253.

 

Chiba, N., Ebihara, O., & Morino, S. (2001). Globalization, naturalization and identity: The case of borderless elite athletes in Japan. International review for the sociology of sport, 36(2), 203-221.

Douglas, D. D. (2005). Venus, Serena, and the Women’s Tennis Association: When and where “race” enters. Sociology of Sport Journal, 22(3), 255-281.

International Olympic Committee (2016). Ice hockey. Retrieved from https://www.olympic.org/ice-hockey.

Maguire, J. (1996). Blade runners: Canadian migrants, ice hockey, and the global sports process. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 20(3), 335-360.

Poniatowski, K., & Whiteside, E. (2012). “Isn’t He a Good Guy?”: Constructions of Whiteness in the 2006 Olympic Hockey Tournament. Howard Journal of Communications, 23(1), 1-16.

Robidoux, M. (2001). Men at play: A working understanding of professional hockey. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

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7 thoughts on ““Hockey is Not Your Stuff”: The Racialized Athletic Identity of Korean Ice Hockey Players

  1. Since your article poses a serious accusation that there is discrimination going on in South Korean ice hockey, I would like to see more evidence behind your claims.

    I assume you have interviewed native Korean players to find out that they feel discriminated against and treated unfair. How many players did you interview? Are these the players who did not make the national team or are the interviewed players actually in the national team locker room?

    I don’t doubt that there are differences in the treatment of naturalized and native players by the KIHA, the media and the public, but this issue has TWO sides. However, you are only discussing one and making foreigners on the team look bad. How about the point of view of the naturalized players? These players have played in South Korea for years, they live far away from their homes, they face cultural differences and discrimination in South Korea, too. They surely benefit from playing for the local team as well for the national team, BUT we must realize that Korean players benefit from having them on the teams, too. Without those seven players, South Korea wouldn’t play at the Olympics.

    Ten years ago, Korean teams were among the worst ones in Asia League. This season, Anyang Halla won their fourth title. Whether you like it or not, foreigners played a big role in achieving such success and increased the level of Korean hockey. If you still want to argue that having them on the team is negative, discriminatory, unfair and wrong, you have to convince me with better evidence.

    • Nicole, thanks for your comment. I agree with many of points you made. It is surely difficult to make cultural transition for Canadian/American players in Korea. Also, they have contributed to enhancing not only level of Korean hockey but quality of hockey. Korean players have been redefined and reshaped their hockey style in order to adjust to the competitive international hockey. Without any doubt, imported players play an important role in improvement of Korean hockey as you mentioned briefly about Anyang Halla. However, where I disagree with is that I am not trying to devalue the role of imported players and to make they look bad. I actually try to criticize the culture regarding pervasive Whiteness so that Koreans can see the team without racial prejudgements. The reason I did not consider issues of naturalized players in my posting is that my research topic at that time was only about Korean players who have Korea full descent. I had interviewed 6 players, out of 15 Korean player at team Korea, and they are playing world championship in Ukraine now. My all research participant love to play with imported players but at some parts, they disagree with KIHA’s organizational culture, its attitude on White players, some White players’ abnormal behaviors, and so on. I do not want to make just complains. Instead, I would like to make Korean hockey culture be on the right tract by criticizing slanted racial tastes. This is why I raised negative facets of Korean hockey regarding naturalized players. FYI, I am working on another side of Korean hockey: sporting migration of Canadian/American players in Korea. Once my research has enough data, I will post it on the blog. So, we will see!

      Thank you so much for valuable comments and your interests on Asian hockey especially Korean hockey I believe.

      • Could you define what you mean by the “abnormal behaviour” displayed by the naturalised Korean players? On the surface and without stating what these players are allegedly doing, that seems like a libellous and judgmental statement to make.

        Also, are you sure that there aren’t other factors at play here? I’m thinking specifically of the fact that the naturalised Korean players were trained and brought up in much more well-organised and well-funded youth development systems. The fact that many of the biggest individual contributors for the Korean national team are the naturalised ones doesn’t mean there is a causal relationship here involving a racialised view of supposedly-superior white bodies: it probably just means that they are better hockey players with more experience in better leagues.

        The Korean federation has a big chance right now, a chance that Japan also had but completely botched due to poor management and not increasing the amount of funding and resources available to youth players aiming to play competitively. If Korea learns from Japan’s mistakes, then they could remain competitive in fifteen years time and not ‘have’ (not that this should be problematic whatsoever) to offer spots to naturalised Koreans.

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  3. I think this is an interesting post and I really appreciate sharing the perspectives of Korean players. However, one point I would make is that the head and assistant coach of the Korean men’s team is Jim Paek and Richard Park, who are both Canadian-raised racially Korean guys who played in the NHL (Paek won 2 Stanley Cups and Park was in the NHL for some 15 year). The reason why they were such strong players and are very knowledgeable coaches is because of the system they grew up in, not because of race. They had more opportunities to get good coaching and play against good competition in their youth, so they developed as better players. The Korean players don’t have to face much competition in Korea and often they don’t know how to play well as a team because the skilled players can just do it all by themselves, but that doesn’t work when everyone is skilled. It is also a problem for Korean players that the age hierarchy on teams often suppresses young talent from developing. It seems having Jim Paek and Richard Park as coaches would disprove the idea that Korean race is a disadvantage for the native Korean players, and show that training and hockey culture are more important.

    I would also think that the women’s national team provides some push back to your focus on race and whiteness as a defining aspect of the identity of native Korean ice hockey players, as opposed to culture and Western privilege more generally. I say this because the women’s team has also recruited North American players- 2 Canadians and 3 Americans that I know of. None of them speak fluent Korean and culturally they are westernized, but they all have Korean parents and they look Korean (like Jim Paek and Richard Park). Thus, on the women’s team, the differences between the North American players and the native Korean players cannot be based on race. The North Americans probably also have advantages within the team because their coach speaks English and has to communicate with the Korean players using a translator, so they automatically have more access to the team leadership. The dynamics and feelings on the team could possibly be similar to what you are described for the men, but if so, it is Western culture and privilege that puts the native Koreans at a disadvantage, not race.

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