Remembering Korea’s first Olympic hero

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Remembering Korea’s first Olympic hero

Sohn Ki-chung made Olympic history in 1936. At the Summer Games in Berlin, the Korean marathoner broke the world record, finishing the 42,195 meters (26 miles and 385 yards) in two hours, 29 minutes and 13 seconds. He finished a few minutes ahead of a British runner, Ernest Harper, and another Korean, Nam Sung-yong, who won the silver and the bronze, respectively.
This was historic. Not only had Mr. Sohn broken the world record, but it was the first time in the Olympic marathon that two runners from the same country had won medals.
But to Koreans, Mr. Sohn’s image resonates more strongly for his expressions of resentment against Japan, which ruled Korea at the time. At the Berlin Olympics, he ran under a Japanese name he was forced to take: Kitei Sohn. On official documents, he would sketch a rough map of Korea next to his signature, as a way of signalling that he wasn’t really Japanese.
In interviews later in life, Mr. Sohn was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t have run in the Olympics had he known that national anthems would be played at the medal ceremonies. It is still a controversial question whether, on the winners’ platform at the ceremony, Mr. Sohn intentionally held his laurel plant in front of his chest in order to hide the Japanese flag on his shirt.
That seems possible, in light of some of the other images and documents from Mr. Sohn’s life in “Olympic Games and Sohn Ki-Chung,” a photo retrospective that’s at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts until Tuesday.
One photograph shows Mr. Sohn cheerlessly walking toward the locker room after the marathon, his head down. A postcard he mailed to a friend in Korea after the race bears the Olympic stamp next to a simple Korean phrase in Sohn’s handwriting: “I am sad.”

The exhibition at the Sejong Center is from a collection of Mr. Sohn’s photographs, letters and personal belongings that had been kept by his relatives and aides since his death, four years ago, at the age of 90. Seoul Selection helped arrange the exhibit, and Mr. Sohn’s grandson, Lee Jun-seung, was instrumental in putting it together.
“When I ran as a kid, he would always ask me not to give up until I got to the finish line,” Mr. Lee, 38, said recently, looking at a photo of his grandfather carrying the torch at the 1988 Seoul Olympics opening ceremony.
“He said that when I feel exhausted, the person who’s running behind me feels just as exhausted as I am, and the person before me is more exhausted than I am,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee didn’t become a marathoner, partly because his grandfather discouraged him from doing so. “He would always say my eyes weren’t persistent enough for running,” he said. “He would say that to his runners when they were out of shape. He would stare at people’s eyes before watching them run.”
His grandfather’s influence is clear in Mr. Lee’s life. He works for the National Council of Sports, a state-run organization that helps promote and sponsor runners and other athletes in Korea. The last four digits of his mobile phone number are “1936.”
The Sejong exhibit includes iconic images from Mr. Sohn’s career. Among them is an old newspaper clip from the Dong-A Ilbo’s 1936 Olympic coverage. The paper deliberately erased the Japanese flag from Mr. Sohn’s shirt in a photo. This enraged the colonial government; several Dong-A Ilbo editors and reporters were imprisoned because of it, and the paper wasn’t printed for 10 months.
The exhibit also suggests what a meticulous collector Mr. Sohn was. He held on to everything from his high school photo ID card to notes from International Olympic Committee members. “He even kept the hotel receipts when he was invited to international meetings for Olympics heroes,” Mr. Lee says. “Every Christmas, he would make a long rope in his living room to hang cards from people he knew, and leave them there until late January.”
Mr. Sohn met several well-known people at the Olympics, and maintained decades-long friendships with some of them. One was Leni Riefenstahl, the highly controversial German documentarian who made a film about the Berlin Olympics for the Nazis that included footage of Mr. Sohn’s victory. (In interviews, Mr. Sohn hinted that he met Adolf Hitler in Berlin, but Mr. Lee doubts that it happened.)
Ms. Reifenstahl’s film, “Olympia,” was used as propaganda by the Third Reich, as was her earlier film “Triumph of the Will.” Ms. Riefenstahl sympathized with Mr. Sohn’s feelings about his mother country, according to Mr. Lee, and with his attempts to irritate Japanese authority by emphasizing his national identity in public.
As a gift for Mr. Sohn, Ms. Reifenstahl made an excerpt from “Olympia” focusing on the marathon; the short film is being screened several times daily at the Sejong exhibition.
While Mr. Sohn showed obvious signs of resistance to the Japanese government, images from the exhibit also hint that he made compromises under oppressive circumstances.
After the Olympics, when he went to what is now Korea University, he found himself followed by police, who were keeping an eye on him because of his opinions about Japan. In his sophomore year, to stop the harrassment, he transferred to a university in Japan, although he elicited the prior condition that he would not have to join the school’s marathon team.
In records from when Mr. Sohn was training for the Olympics, a report criticizes him for such “improper activities” as always running separately from the rest of the Japanese team during practice.
In the years after Japanese rule, Mr. Sohn became involved in what could finally be called Korean sports. In 1947, he coached a Korean team for the Boston Marathon. He later became chairman of the Korean Sports Association and an advisor to the Korean Olympic Committee.
“He hiked, skied and did stretches, but he never got involved with sports or games where he had to compete with others,” Mr. Lee said.
“He didn’t even play cards,” he said. “When I asked him why, he just said he didn’t want to lose.”
Mr. Lee says his grandfather felt an obligation to live up to the expectations people had of him. When he carried the torch at the Seoul Olympics, Mr. Sohn had a terrible problem with his ankle.
“His ankle was swollen to about three times its normal size at that time,” Mr. Lee said. “The night before the ceremony, he had major acupuncture treatment. He was not supposed to run, but he was jumping up and down at the stadium, almost as if he was reenacting a scene.”
Mr. Lee was a pallbearer at his grandfather’s funeral in 2000. “For him, it was really about how to live, rather than how to run,” Mr. Lee said. “He taught me that it’s just as important to learn to light a burner as it is to get to a finish line.”


by Park Soo-mee

“Olympic Games: Sohn Kee-chung” runs through Tuesday in the main exhibition hall of the Sejong Center Museum of Fine Art, within the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, call (02) 734-9567. To get to the Sejong Center, take subway line No. 5 to Gwanghwamun station and use exit 8.

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