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The Conquerors Won, Thanks to the Conquered

Oct. 28, 1968
Oct. 28, 1968

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Oct. 28, 1968

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The Conquerors Won, Thanks to the Conquered

The Japanese beat every nation of Southeast Asia in waging war, and history claims that they beat the whole world in the Olympic marathon of 1936. But the front-runner was really a patriotic Korean

The record books tell how a runner named Kitei Son won the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games for the greater glory of Imperial Japan. Well, the record books are wrong, as the man they called Kitei Son himself will tell you. The records are wrong because the real name of the man who won that race is Sohn Kee Chung, a proud Korean who did not and would not ever do anything for the glory of Korea's Japanese conquerors. He won the marathon all right, but he won it for Korea—and never mind what was decreed by those who tried to "Japanize" his country, who forbade Koreans to celebrate their national festivals, to wear their national dress or even to speak their own language.

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 1968 issue Original Layout

Born 55 years ago in Sinuiju, which is just across the Yalu River from Manchuria, Sohn began running as a schoolboy during the Japanese occupation when everything was taught in Japanese and a Korean child had to learn his native tongue in secret. One of his teachers was a man named Il Sun Lee. Lee looked over the gangling, slightly frail youth in his elementary school class and thought he might make a good runner.

Together Lee and Sohn invented their training methods. To build wind, strength and stamina, they loaded Sohn's baggy paji work pants with sand and strapped rocks on his back until his legs became stalks of muscle. By the time he was 14, Sohn was the school's 5,000 and 10,000-meter champion.

When Sohn, at the age of 17, won a student marathon in remarkable time, Lee's ambition grew. Despite Japanese insistence that athletes from conquered territories such as Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria compete as Japanese, he was determined to get Sohn to the 1936 Olympic Games, and he succeeded.

There was another Korean on the Japanese team: a student named Nam Sung Yong, then living in Japan. In the trials before the Japanese team left for Berlin, Sohn raced Nam through the streets of downtown Tokyo and was beaten by several minutes. He had no real reason to believe he would do better at the Games. "It was a big world," he says, "and there were lots of fine runners in it."

Nevertheless he was full of hope as the team rode across Russia and Europe, arriving in Berlin 12 days after it left Tokyo. There, when asked to sign the official register, Sohn Kee Chung defiantly wrote his name in Korean and drew a small map of Korea beside his signature. It was one of many he drew during 20 days of training, whenever anyone asked him where he was from.

As he recovered from the tiring trip across Russia and recouped his wind, legs and timing, Sohn suddenly felt a surge of confidence. "I knew I was going to win," he says, but he was the only one in Berlin who did know it. Most experts were betting on the Argentinean, Juan Carlos Zabala, who had won at Los Angeles four years earlier. There was also a lean, durable Englishman named Ernest Harper. The Japanese? They had won only two track events in the entire history of the Olympics. They would be lucky if their marathon runners even finished.

The Games began with noisy pomp and ceremony. Uniformed Hitler Youth marched in a torchlight parade at the Lustgarten. The Olympic flame was carried from there to the stadium. Hitler ranted and thousands of arms thrust up in the standard salute to Aryan nationalism. But there was one non-Aryan in Berlin as fanatically nationalistic as any Nazi: the Korean Sohn Kee Chung.

At the start of the marathon the world's best distance runners were lined up against him: Zabala and Harper and an American named Ellison Myers (The Indian) Brown. There were the three Finns—Erkki Tamila, Vaino Moinonen and Mauno Tarkiainen. The starting gun released a flock of 50 marathoners in all. Their long course thrust out of the stadium, over an auto racetrack, out of the city, into the country and back—26 miles, 385 yards.

As expected, Zabala immediately flashed ahead. He was out to win big and better the record he had set in Los Angeles four years before. Sohn was in 20th place. Brown and the three Finns were ahead of him, and the Finns were using an alternate-lead technique that kept the freshest man near the front.

Two miles gone. Zabala was still ahead. He had set such a brutal pace that runners began falling to their knees, sobbing with exhaustion, or staggered off the road, shaking their heads.

Three miles; more runners gone. Zabala was in the lead; behind him was Brown. In third place, snapping at the American's heels, was Harper. Sohn was in fourth place.

Sohn put on a spurt and ran even with the rangy Englishman. Brown appeared to be far ahead of him now and Zabala even farther. Sohn started a move to catch up.

"Take it easy," a quiet voice next to him said. Sohn glanced to the right. He knew no English but the meaning of Harper's words were instantly clear. The two runners became close friends then and there in the heat of that bitterly contested race.

Sohn and his new friend ran even for the next 14 miles. There are those who say Harper sacrificed his own chances at the 17-mile mark by telling Sohn to run ahead, but Sohn denies this. In any case, Brown suddenly faded, and Sohn loped past him. Nineteen miles gone. An exhausted Zabala was starting to weave and stumble. He glanced back and saw Sohn coming up on him.

Two more miles and the tiny Argentinean finally collapsed.

Sohn was not exactly fresh himself. He felt a bursting pain in his chest; leaden exhaustion crept down his legs.

"The human body can do so much," Sohn says simply. 'Then your heart and spirit must take over."

Sohn's spirit was as good as his wind and legs had been. It was needed; the toughest part of the course, a steep rise, was just ahead. Puffing and dizzy, Sohn started to climb. The tough, determined Harper was not far behind. At last they made it. Sohn ran the last flat, twisting miles to the stadium in an easy lope and finished first in a record 2:29:19.2. Harper followed two minutes later. Amazingly enough, Sohn's teammate Nam was third.

Still dazed, Sohn stood on a podium, and told newspapermen again and again that he and Nam were Korean, not Japanese. They had won for Korea.

Back home the editor of one of Seoul's largest newspapers defiantly scratched the Rising Sun emblems off photographs of Sohn and Nam, identified them as Korean, and said they had won a great athletic victory for Korea. The Japanese threw the editor in jail and closed down his newspaper.

Sohn Lee Chung, alias Kitei Son, never ran in another Olympics. The Games scheduled in 1940 were canceled because of war. In time that war liberated Sohn's homeland from the Japanese militarists only to put the northern part of it—the part that Sohn himself called home—under the domination of another set of tyrants. Sohn himself settled in the south and became a coach and adviser to a number of South Korean teams traveling all over the world.

He was present in Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics, and there he met an old friend: Il Sun Lee, the schoolteacher who had seen promise in a gangling lad some 35 years before and sent him on to become an Olympic champion. It was not a friendly meeting. Lee by then was the coach of a Communist track team from the North whose athletes withdrew from the Games in anger when the International Olympic Committee said they would have to join forces with the team from the South and compete as a unit.