[Outlook]Relighting the Olympic flame

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[Outlook]Relighting the Olympic flame

It was raining in Seoul at around 11 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1936. At that time, Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Seung-ryong were running in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 7,750 kilometers from Seoul.

Even though the Internet was not available for live broadcasts at that time, people could hear that the two runners were putting on an extra burst of speed at the last minute via NHK radio.

At the very moment when Sohn passed the 17.5 kilometer point in fourth place, the radio broadcast was stopped without mercy, because the Olympic broadcasts were only aired twice a day for one hour. People stamped their feet in anxiety and frustration, but had no choice but to wait.

The media reported the good news that Sohn won the gold medal in the marathon at around 1:30 a.m. the next day. He set a world marathon record of 2:29:19, having broken the 2:30 barrier.

Nam came up behind, bringing home the bronze. Hearing news of the two winners, people began to cry “Hurrah!” Tears of joy finally sprang into people’s eyes. They had cried tears of sorrow for so long, thinking of the dark situation facing Joseon under Japan’s colonial rule.

Sohn ran at breakneck speed toward the finishing tape at the Berlin Olympic Stadium to a storm of applause from the crowd. He made an astonishing last push as the finish line neared, covering 100 meters in 15 seconds. It was a desperate sprint that took the concentration of all his energy.

As soon as Sohn finished the race, the first thing he did was to take off his shoes. His feet were covered with blood. The shoes Sohn wore in the marathon were Japanese-style sports shoes that separated the big toe from the other toes. It did not satisfy Sohn’s needs, and brought him great discomfort as he ran. However, what made him feel even more uncomfortable was the Japanese flag on his breast.

The runners were two young men from Joseon, but they were forced to wear Japanese flags and be members of the Japanese Olympic delegation. Koreans were overcome with a series of sorrows, as their country had become a Japanese colony. But this was more sorrowful than ever before.

The Korean athlete’s victory led to controversy on Aug. 25, 1936, when the Dong-A Ilbo printed a picture of Sohn on the victory stand with the Japanese flag erased from his uniform. It became an extremely famous story for all Koreans.

Even though the Japanese flag in the picture could be erased, Sohn, a Korean young man, is still listed as being from Japan on the list of winners engraved at the Berlin Olympic Stadium.

New People’s Party lawmaker Park Young-rok snuck into the stadium and changed “Japan” to “Korea” after a five-hour chiseling effort at the crack of dawn on Aug. 15, 1970. The West German police arrested him on charges of trespassing, theft and damage to public property. And his efforts were in vain - “Korea” was changed back to “Japan.”

Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Seung-ryong have already died. Park Young-rok, who went through all the troubles to change “Japan” to “Korea,” now lives in makeshift house fashioned out of a shipping container around the Samseon Bridge in Seoul.

Now, with the Beijing Olympic torch aflame, we seem to see the flag and the name of our country with no poetic inspiration.

A variety of media - newspapers, TV and the Internet - will continue to provide live broadcasts of how well Korean athletes, with the Korean flag on their breasts, do in the Games.

But now that we are no longer desperate, it seems that we have forgotten the national spirit of struggle that drove us all those years back. It seems that we take both the Korean flag on an athlete’s breast and the nation’s name for granted.

I hope that we can all look back on the past and remember how desperate we once were.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chung Jin-hong
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