Sohn Kee-chung: Reluctant Marathon Champion at the 1936 Berlin Games

Sohn Kee-Chung on the podium after winning the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Sohn Kee-Chung on the podium after winning the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games.

He was 73 years old at the time, carrying the heavy burden of the Olympic torch as well as the shame of 1936, and yet he bounded into the Olympic Stadium, hopping and waving his arms to the crowd, overjoyed to be a part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

Sohn Kee-chung deserved the honor. After all, he had won the gold medal in the premier athletics event, the marathon, in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. But he did not race as a Korean. Instead, he ran as a member of the Japanese Olympic team. In May of 1910, Japan had overpowered the rulers of Korea and made that country its protectorate. When Sohn was born in 1914, hundreds of thousands of Japanese had already moved to the Korean colony, ostensibly to increase Japanese claim to the territory, as well as ease population and food stress in Japan.

Sohn eventually grew into a fine runner, setting the world record in the marathon in Tokyo in November, 1935, a record that lasted for 12 years. The Japanese were eager to do well in the medal count in Berlin, so they sent Sohn and a fellow Korean named Nam Sung-yong to Berlin. And Sohn delivered, winning gold, with his teammate Nam taking bronze. Sohn’s victory, so dramatic, was featured in Leni Reifenstahl’s famed documentary on the Berlin Games. The Japanese national team was of course overjoyed. But nothing burned Sohn more than to look up, tired and victorious at the end of a grueling race, and not see his name on the scoreboard.

Sohn Kee-chung running under the Japanese flag as Kitei Son, from the book "A Picture History of the Olympics"
Sohn Kee-chung running under the Japanese flag as Kitei Son, from the book “A Picture History of the Olympics”

Up came the name Son Kitei, the Japanized version of the characters in his name. And next to that name was the name of the country Japan. The photo at the top of this post shows the shame of the two Koreans who stood on the podium listening to the Japanese national anthem. As you can see in the picture, the heads of the two Koreans are bowed, ashamed of the Japanese flag on their shirt, and ashamed to have brought glory to their conqueror.

When the Second World War ended and the Japanese Empire dissolved, Korea went deeper into a political quagmire by splitting into North and South Korea. But at least Sohn could run with the Korean flag on his uniform, which he did when a team representing Korea for the first time went to the 1950 Boston Marathon.