[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Running the extra mile for love of countryApril 19, 1947
Marathons and archery competitions are two sports where Koreans excel. On this date, Seo Yun-bok, the Korean marathoner, again confirmed this by taking the championship at the 51st Boston Marathon. Mr. Seo set a world record back then, finishing the course in two hours, 25 minutes and 39 seconds. He was 24 years old.
Many Koreans still fondly remember the scene of Mr. Seo winning while wearing the name of his home country on his chest. It was barely two years since Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule for 36 years. After liberation, the country was suffering from turbulence before the establishment of a nation with emerging communist and democratic factions.
The news of Mr. Seo’s victory was a light of hope for Koreans in the middle of confusion. Mr. Seo was among the first athletes who let the world know of the country called Korea.
Mr. Seo was not the first Korean to win a marathon. Sohn Kee-chung won a gold medal for a marathon at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Mr. Sohn, however, had to wear the Japanese flag on his chest because it was during the Japanese colonial rule. Mr. Sohn himself witnessed Mr. Seo’s victory in tears as his coach.
Mr. Seo started running marathons in his teens in middle school, later graduating from Korea University as a business major. His lifelong passion, however, was running.
To conquer the notorious Heartbreak Hill of the Boston Marathon, Mr. Seo first flew over the Pacific to Boston on a U.S. Army transport plane. Not that it was a part of the hard training. Mr. Seo simply could not even afford a one-way economy class plane ticket. He boarded a ship on his way back home even after he took the first in a marathon where 155 runners from eight countries participated.
Mr. Seo later told the press, “When I wore the laurel crown on my head, all I could think of was my home country. I wanted to go back home so badly.” Mr. Seo’s victory was followed by another Korean winning the first, second and third ranks of the Boston Marathon in 1950, which was another big surprise.
When he indeed came back after one-month-long boat ride, all he could do was to cry at the sight of the crowd waving Korean flags and calling out his name out loud at the Incheon port.
Mr. Seo found himself a star of the people, while making a car parade along with his coach Mr. Sohn.
When Mr. Seo visited Syngman Rhee, then a respected independence movement activist against Japanese colonial rule, Mr. Rhee, who later became the country’s first president, ran out from his house barefooted to greet Mr. Seo, only to burst into tears huggin the marathoner.
Another much-respected independent activist Kim Gu also complimented Mr. Seo by giving his own calligraphy writing saying “jokpae cheonha,” meaning “conquering the world with legs.”
The calligraphy of this admired independent activist is kept as an inscribed stone monument at Mr. Seo’s alma mater, Sungmun High School.
After winning the 1947 Boston Marathon, Mr. Seo became a marathon coach at schools and devoted himself to the local sports scene, while playing a key role in sports associations and managing sports stadiums.
After retiring, he found himself a popular lecturer and was invited to tell his story at companies and schools.
by Chun Su-jin