Canadian ice hockey player Brock Radunske may compete for Korea. Is this sea-change moment for Korean sport?

The Korean Olympic Committee has indicated it is keen for Canadian Brock Radunske to represent South Korea’s national ice hockey team. Radunske has been playing for the Korean team Anyang Halla in the Asia League Ice Hockey for the past five years. The KOC will approach the government about expediting the usual citizenship process so that Radunske will be eligible to play for Korea in future winter Olympics, perhaps with half an eye on PyeonChang 2018.

Brock Radunske pictured playing for Michigan State back in 2001. Pic: AP.

This may come as surprise to Korean fans who have seen similar attempts at Koreanization run into bureaucratic and public relations problems (usually with the latter preceding the former), and the KOC themselves have usually been those standing in the way.

Last year the Korean Football Association attempted to naturalize Brazilian soccer player Eninho in the hopes he may play for the Korean national team. The much debated case became a litmus test for the public and official sentiment on the issue. The response was largely negative.  The Korean Times vehemently argued, with thinly veiled references to his ‘foreignness’, that Eninho was surely incompatible with other Korean players.

“Another factor is that impressive individual performances by naturalized players have not translated to team success in a sport that capitalizes on chemistry.… football requires teamwork and communication as well as individual capability.”

Eninho’s request was eventually rejected. The KOC explained “a basic understanding of Korean culture and language is essential… However, we thought he lacked effort in those parts.”

The year before the KFA’s attempts to naturalize Montenegrin player Dzenan Radoncic also failed as he had spent six months out of Korean during the past five years.

As of now only 4 athletes have been granted special citizenship, all of which had some Korean ancestry or parentage. The KOC openly admitted this weighed in their favor “since those players are… half-Korean, and there were not many negative voices from the public.” All four have done little to effect their team’s fortunes.

If his application is accepted Radunske will be the first completely ‘foreign’ foreigner to play for a Korean national team.

At this point an effort must be made not to get lost in the interesting, but occasionally infuriating, tangent of Korea’s ‘Pure Blood’ ideas. These concepts of racial and social homogeny are being challenge in almost every part of Korean society. Familial, military, political, and legal changes are all moving at different paces, but sport may prove to be one area which can forge ahead with less resistance.

This has after all been the case in other countries. In the UK the Jamaican born John Barnes was one of England’s biggest stars and also one of the most visible, maybe only, black faces on British TV in the early ’80s.

Is Brock Radunske’s case indicative of an acceptance of Korea’s changing face? Maybe, but pertinent to this whole conversation is the fact that ‘it’s only hockey’ (hockey fans, feel free to leave angry comments below). Ice Hockey is very low down the Korean sporting ladder; in fact it’s barely on it. Brock Radunske is therefore unlikely to be a visible face and Koreans are unlikely to worry about him representing their country.

Soccer and baseball players will still have to wait.