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

Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

After the Rome Olympics in 1960, there was probably no athlete more well known than Abebe Bikila, the barefoot marathon champion.

So when Bikila arrived in Japan in 1961 for the Mainichi Marathon in Osaka, he was treated like a rock star. Everyone wanted to take a picture of him. Everyone wanted to meet him. In particular, a businessman named Kihachiro Onitsuka, who ran a shoe company, wanted to meet Bikila, and more than anything, hold his feet in his hands.

Bikila’s coach, Onni Niskanen, was concerned as the roads in Osaka were in parts made of gravel and other parts poorly conditioned tarmac. He explained that “I didn’t dare take the risk of bruised feet. Wami (Biratu) had to run barefoot as he had never run with shoes on.”

So as fate has it, the desire of one met the needs of another, thanks to the introduction of Kohei Murakuso, 5 and 10 thousand runner in the Berlin Olympics, Kihachiro Onitsuka was brought to the room of Abebe Bikila. As related in the book, Bikila – Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian, by Tim Judah, Onitsuka really tried to impress Bikila with the possibility of injury, as well as the benefit of a shoe that grips the road. Here is how Onitsuka remembers the conversation:

Onitsuka: I am here to support you and supply you with shoes. I hope you will win this race with my shoes!
Bikila: I have always run barefoot and I have won many times. I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: The roads in Japan are very rough and that’s why you should wear shoes.
Bikila: The roads may be rough but I don’t need shoes.
Onitsuka: Your bare feet are excellent, they are like cat’s paws. But still, shoes could improve your records.

Despite Bikila’s resistance, Niskanen weighed in with the view that shoes might be a good idea on this terrain, and Bikila gave in to the word of his coach. Bikila did indeed win the marathon fairly handily, and it was reported that

Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.
Abebe Bikila winning gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960.

He ran into the night along the Appian Way, torches held by Italian soldiers lighting the way, the only sound the onlookers would notice is the pidder padder of his barefeet on the road.

A complete unknown, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, won the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He was a member of the Imperial Bodyguard in Ethiopia, a country where people got around by running, commonly without shoes. When Bikila arrived in Rome, he tried on various pairs of shoes, but he could not find a pair that did not hurt and cause blisters.

Bikila and his fellow runner Abebe Wakjira decided to run barefoot. This was a decision that embarrassed them. They felt people were laughing at the poor Ethiopians who could not afford shoes, so they stayed hidden in their tent until the marathon began.

But Bikila’s triumph had a tremendous ripple effect over the decades. Not only was Bikila a victory for Ethiopia, he was a symbol of pride and achievement for all of Africa. Bikila became the role model so important to sparking the imagination of other would-be long-distance runners in impoverished Africa.

Wrote David Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, “as the first black African to win a gold medal, Abebe Bikila paved the way for what would become a long and illustrious line of East African distance runners. Many were from Ethiopia but even more hailed from Kenya, led by the brilliant Kipchoge Keino, who won the metric mile at Mexico City, outpacing the American Jim Ryun, and took home the steeplechase gold four years later in Munich.”

Here we are, decades later, at the recent IAAF Track and Field Championships in Beijing, it was Kenya that topped the medal tables, with Ethiopia in the fifth rank.

Maraniss cited a poem published in The Ethiopian Herald on the death of Bikila.

He made our flag to fly
Right above
Dead and gone Mussolini
Then and then
Abebe led, Mamo followed
Ethiopia led, Kenya followed

Here is the video of Bikila’s triumph in Rome.

Fred Lorz at 1904 Olympics preparing for the marathon.
Fred Lorz, center in dark jersey, at 1904 Olympics preparing for the marathon.

The third Olympic Games were held in St Louis, Missouri in the United States in 1904, after the first two modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, and then in Paris in 1900.

The early years of the Olympics were a struggle as organizers fought for mindshare. As was true in the Paris Games, the St Louis Olympic Games were second billing to the World’s Fair, which were highly popular expositions in the early to mid-20th century.

According to the book, A Picture History of the Olympics, the organizers promised to arrange a ship to visit all major European ports to bring athletes to the first Games outside of Europe, but somehow the ship never crossed the Atlantic. Despite the Olympic rings representing the five continents, really only one had significant representation. Of the 650 athletes present, 580 were from America.

Swimmers had to swim in an assymetrical lake that made it hard for swimmers to stay in their lanes. The only item on the menu for the athletes was buffalo meat. And a new contraption called the car kicked up so much dust and spewed so much exhaust that marathoners had to cough their way through 42 kilometers.

The initial winner of the 1904 marathon was Fred Lorz, who stopped running after 16 kilometers, hopped on a vehicle for nine miles before it broke down, and then ran the rest of the way. He finished first easily, and was greeted by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Eventually, Lorz’s ruse was uncovered and he was banned for a year. Thomas Hicks, from Boston, was declared the winner. Lorz, a New Yorker, apologized for his “joke”, was allowed to compete before the year was up, and went on to win the 1905 Boston Marathon.

Rosie Ruiz
Rosie Ruiz

Which all reminds me of a New Yorker named Rosie Ruiz. She won the 1980 Boston Marathon in a record 2:31:56, about 25 minutes better than her previous race in the New York City Marathon six months earlier. How did she improve so greatly? She simply started the race about 800 meters from the finish, emerging from a crowd of spectators on Commonwealth Avenue.