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Song Kee-Chung: Korean To The Core

Nov 29, 2017
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One of the most dramatic and enduring moment of any Olympic Games opening ceremony is when the Olympic flame is brought into the main stadium during the opening ceremony. There have been occasions when the theatre of the event has perhaps overshadowed the actual bearer, such as when Stein Gruber of Norway brought the 1994 Lillehammer torch down a ski jump, or when Antonio Rebollo used a flaming arrow to assist with the lighting of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic cauldron. On other occasions it has been the celebrity or relative athletic greatness of the final torchbearers who have defined an Olympic opening cermeony, as in the case of Rafer Johnson at Los Anegles in 1984, or Niklos Kaklamankis in Athens 2004. Finally, there are those times when the symbolism of that final torchbearer goes beyond spectacle or sporting greatness; that person or persons symbolizes something specific about the host nation and its culture. Cathy Freeman in Sydney 2000 is a prime example of this. In 1988 the presence of one man in the final deliverance of the Olympic torch brought (to quote David Wallechinsky) “tears to an entire nation…”. That country was South Korea, and the torchbearer who evoked such a powerful response from his countrymen and women was Sohn Kee-Chung. 52 years prior to the 76 year old’s entrance into Seoul’s Olympic stadium this immensely proud Korean had won a gold medal for the marathon whilst competing as a member of the Japanese team. Yet even though he had to wear the occupier’s uniform, listen to their national anthem and even have his name changed to echo Japanese norms, Sohn never let the colonial masters of his homeland take away his dignity.

Sohn Kee-Chung was born in Sinŭiju, North P’yŏngan Province in 1912 and during his youth he would run against friends riding bicycles, as well as up and down logging tracks near his home town. When his talent was recognised by the relevant authorities he was then sent to Yangjung High School in Seoul, where many well-credentialled Korean runners were based. Running for Sohn was not just a physical activity, it was a way of showing his Korean-ness. As quoted in “Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole The Olympic Dream” by Guy Walters, Sohn stated:

“The Japanese could stop our musicians from playing our songs. They could stop our singers and silence our speakers. But they could not stop me from running.”

After initial success in the 800 metres and 1500 metres Sohn turned to the marathon. Winning his first three races held in Seoul (possibly over a reduced distance), Sohn Kee-Chung was twice national champion by 1935. In April his considerable marathon reputation spread beyond Asia, when it was reported that a ‘Japanese’ runner had beaten the two and a half hour mark for the distance. In his seven races that year (four in Korea, three in Japan) Sohn cemented his position as a leading exponent of the longest distance run by any Olympic athlete, then made a definitive statement of intent with his marathon run of November 3rd 1935. Completing a course staged in Tokyo Song Kee-Chung crossed the finish line after 2 hours 26 minutes and 42 seconds. This was a new world record. This was almost five minutes faster than that recorded by 1932 Los Angeles marathon gold medallist Juan Carlos Zabala of Argentina. The issue for Sohn going into the Olympic year and the 1936 Berlin Summer Games wasn’t his fitness or speed; it was his nationality.

At the first Japanese Olympic trial marathon held on April 18th 1936 Sohn Kee-Chung was running under his Japanese name of Kitei Son, and whilst he laboured under this cultural burden his athletic ability was in no way impaired. Winning in a time of 2.28.32 the Korean beat leading Japanese entrants Shinichi Nakamura and Fusahige Suzuki. Then in a final trial event Sohn came second behind Tamao Shiaku, and these two plus another Korean native, Nam Seung-yong (a.k.a. Shoryu Nan) would form the basis of the Japanese entries into the Berlin marathon.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s marathon runners were also preparing for the Berlin Games. Two South Africans, Johannes Coleman and Henry Gibson both set sub 2 hour 33 minute times in their national championship. In Britain Donald McNab Robertson and Ernest Harper qualifed for Berlin in July at the AAA Championships with times about 9 minutes slower than Sohn’s world record. The Americans had three contenders for Berlin, William McMahon, Mel Porter and John Kelley. However none of these three were close to Sohn’s times. Finally the Argentinian Zabala trained extensively in the host city of the 1936 Summer Olympics for several months prior to the games, and in the absence of a leading German competitor established himself as a local favourite. The Berlin marathon promised to be a great race.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics opened on Saturday August 1st, and both before and after that date whenever Sohn Kee-Chung met anyone in Berlin he took the opportunity to impress upon officials, journalists and fans alike that he was Korean, not Japanese. He even went to the effort of signing his name in its Korean form, not as Kitei Son. Yet when it came to the day of the marathon, Sunday August 9th he like his compatriot Nam wore the Hi-no-maru or Rising Sun of Japan. Lined up against a field of 56 competitors from 27 countries, Sohn was about to stage a truly unique act of national protest against foreign domination of his homeland.

The Berlin course ran from the Olympiastadion through the Grunewald forest, then back into the main stadium for one last lap before the finishing line was reached. Conditions for the marathoners were good, being dry and sunny with an air temperature of around 22 degrees celsius, and this assisted Zabala as he took off with great speed from the race’s beginning. Wearing a white handkerchief on his head the Argentinian set a quick pace with the first 8 kilometres traversed in 26 minutes 18 seconds. Portuguese runner Manuel Dias was in second place, but Sohn and Britain’s Harper were also near the front of the race. The lead narrowed at the 15 kilometres mark with Dias only lagging about 100 seconds behind Zabala, with Sohn and Harper closing the gap to be half a minute behind the Portuguese runner.

By the half way mark Dias was caught by the Korean and the Briton, and Zabala’s lead was dropping to less than a minute. Then in the style of many an Olympic gold medallist Zabala fought back, lengthening his lead to 90 seconds at the 25 kilometre point. Harper and Sohn were locked together in joint second whilst Ellison ‘Tarzan’ Brown of the USA surged into fourth. Then came the crucial moment in the 1936 Marathon. At the 28 kilometre mark as Zabala approached the northern end of the neighbouring Avus raceway he tripped, fell and recovered just as Harper and Sohn passed him. Sohn took the lead by the 31 kilometre mark (leading by 16 seconds from Harper), whilst within another kilometre Zabala dropped out. The Korean extended his lead over Harper at every major mark between this point and the stadium. Meanwhile, in the battle for the bronze Sohn’s fellow-countryman Nam claimed third position by the 35th kilometre. The order wouldn’t change from here until the end of the race. Sohn Kee-Chung racing under the ‘official’ name of Kitei Son returned to the Berlin stadium in first place, crossing the finish line to win the gold medal. Nam was finishing quickly but Harper claimed silver, even as his one of his shoes filled with blood from a bad foot blister. It was the first marathon gold for an Asian country at the Olympic Games, even though it wasn’t actually the one that the winner believed he was truly representing. Mobbed by Japanese journalists Sohn had to endure their claims to his victory on behalf of their nation; this was a bittersweet gold medal victory.

Foreshadowing a far more notorious incident mounted by Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when the time came for the medal presentation the two Korean medallists Sohn and Nam showed their distaste for representing Japan. With the Japanese anthem playing and the Rising Sun climbing up two of the stadium’s flag poles Sohn Kee-Chung and Nam Seung-yong bowed their heads in mute protest, with Sohn even obscuring his uniform’s Japanese emblem. Following this Sohn made sure to point out to those reporters he was Korean not Japanese, however his Japanese minders made sure that this point didn’t get translated. Sohn was even tempted to tell Adolf Hitler his story, yet the Korean demurred at the last moment. It would have been unfathomable for Hitler to understand the Korean’s situation, and as Guy Walter’s points out the German dictator wouldn’t have cared.

There were several intriguing postscripts to Sohn Kee Chung’s victory. As a further expression of national pride the Korean newspaper Dong-a-Ilbo reported Sohn’s gold accompanied with an edited photo that removed the Japanese flag on his sweatshirt. The colonial Japanese government respnded to this act of defiance by jailing 8 Korean staff members of the newspaper and then suspended its publication for 9 months. Meanwhile Sohn and Harper were brought back to Berlin so that famous German documentary director Leni Riefenstahl could re-film segments of the marathon. This incident may have added to the lustre of the Berlin Olympics official film, but it again insulted a great Korean gold medallist. Sohn retired after these events in 1936, never running for Japanese governed Korea again. However in 1948 he was given the honour of carrying South Korea’s flag at the London Olympics. This partially reinforced his position as a Korean patriot on the world stage, but it was back in Seoul more than half a century after his Berlin gold medal that Sohn Kee-Chung was allowed to run in front of his own countrymen at their Olympics. Whilst the IOC never changed its records to show Kitei Son was not who the Japanese represented, but the Korean Sohn Kee-Chung both he and all Koreans knew where his heart and spirit lay.

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