A Hero in His Native Land Sohn Kee Chung is South Korea's most revered athlete. But when he won the marathon in 1936, he was a man without a country

Sept. 14, 1988
Sept. 14, 1988

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Sept. 14, 1988

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A Hero in His Native Land Sohn Kee Chung is South Korea's most revered athlete. But when he won the marathon in 1936, he was a man without a country

HE IS 76 NOW, BUT SOHN KEE Chung still runs. At 6:30 in the
morning, as the great ball of a red summer sun rises above the stark
towers of modern Seoul, Sohn faithfully jogs along the grassy banks
of the Han River, his strides firm and youthful, his face blissfully
free of strain. He smiles in cheerful acknowledgment of passersby. At
5 ft. 6 in. and 150 pounds, he is solidly built, 26 pounds heavier
than the slim Olympian he once was, but still lean and sinewy. The
breeze ruffles his iron-gray hair and he squints in the sun. His face
is as mobile now as an actor's, where once it was an expressionless
mask, the face of a man without a country.
His morning run completed, Sohn briskly walks the 10 minutes back
to the seventh-floor apartment he shares with his wife, Song Young
Sook. ''Oh, you should've seen me run this morning,'' he tells her.
''I was so strong. Such a runner.'' ''Yes,'' she says, ''but what
else are you good for?'' He mutters a guttural oath and waves a fist
at her in mock rage. In the apartment, on the wall to the right of
the entrance, hangs a photo of Sohn crossing the finish line in the
1936 Berlin Olympics. In the picture, his thigh muscles seem ready to
burst, as if he were a sprinter, not a marathon man, and his head is
turned sharply to the right. There is no joy in that face, only the
agony of victory. Barely visible on the right side of his shirt is
the imprint of the Rising Sun, the flag of Japan. . . .

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue

Sohn Kee Chung was born on Aug. 29, 1912 in Sinuiju, a Korean
provincial capital across the Yalu River from China. His father,
Sohn In Suk, was the proprietor of a general store but earned barely
enough to support his four children. Those were hard times in Korea,
a nation then, as so often in its chaotic history, suffering the
hardships of oppressive foreign rule. Japan, which had occupied the
country after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05,
formally annexed it as a colony in 1910. The Japanese promptly set
about the impossible task of obliterating the Korean language and
culture. The conquerors imposed their own language on the country,
even imposing Japanese pronunciation on Korean names, so that Sohn
Kee Chung became Kitei Son. They could call him what they wished; he
knew who he was. He was a Korean, Sohn Kee Chung. He always would be.

Just as he runs now along the Han, Sohn as a boy ran on the banks
of the Yalu. ''The Japanese could stop our musicians from playing
our songs,'' he says. ''They could stop our singers and silence our
speakers. But they could not stop me from running.'' Running, in
fact, became an exercise in free expression for the Koreans, and at
the school level, at least, a means of competing against the despised
Japanese. The running craze also represented a remarkable shift in
priorities for a people who had long subscribed to the Confucian
doctrine that equated physical exercise with barbarism. The slower a
person walked, the old philosophy had it, the higher his standing.
So Sohn ran. He wore rubber shoes tied to his feet with rope, and
he ran in the snow and the rain and the punishing heat of summer. ''I
had no concept of distance,'' he says. ''I just ran as far as I could
along the river.'' As a schoolboy, he began winning races, mostly at
5,000 and 10,000 meters. In 1931 he attracted the interest of Kim Soo
Kee, track coach at Seoul's Yangjung High School, a five-year private
school. Yangjung was famous then for the quality of its track
program. Two Yangjung runners, Kim Eun Bae and Kwon Tae Ha, a recent
graduate, would finish among the top 10 in the marathon at the 1932
Olympics in Los Angeles.
On Oct. 10, 1933, Sohn ran his first marathon, winning in the
extraordinary time of 2:29:34.4, this when the best time ever for a
marathon was 2:29:01.8. But the course was declared short of the
official distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. On Nov. 3, 1935, he sent
ripples of disbelief through the track world by running a world best
of 2:26:42 over an accurately measured distance in . Tokyo. But Sohn
had yet to run outside Korea or Japan, so his times were considered
suspect abroad.
He would need an Olympic stage to convert the skeptics. There was
only one way he could ever compete in the Games, and that was under
the Japanese flag, as Kim and Kwon had in '32. Sohn and a fellow
Korean and Yangjung undergraduate, Nam Sung Yong, whom the Japanese
had renamed Shoryu Nan, entered the Olympic trials in Tokyo on May
21, 1936. Nam won easily in 2:36:10, with Sohn second in 2:38:03,
comfortably ahead of the two top Japanese finishers. Finding this
result hard to swallow, Japanese officials decided that all four
runners should make the trip to Berlin, where another trial would be
held to determine the final three entrants, the vain hope being that
one of the Japanese would eliminate a Korean. But in Berlin, Nam and
Sohn beat the two Japanese even more convincingly.
The Japanese team had traveled to Germany by the trans-Siberian
Railway, through Manchuria and the Soviet Union, a trip that took
nearly two weeks. ''It was my first time outside Asia, and I had no
idea where I was going or how far it was,'' says Sohn. ''I was
restless and a little nervous. I didn't know what to expect in
Germany, and I certainly didn't know what was going on there.'' What
was going on there was the massive preparation for what would
thereafter be known as the Hitler Games. These Olympics were to offer
indisputable proof of the superiority of the Aryan race and culture.
They would be a preliminary to the slaughter that would follow in the
name of that misbegotten theory a few years later.
Sohn was dazzled by his first glimpse of a Western city. ''I
realized immediately the tremendous gap between East and West,'' he
says. ''I saw buildings of such great size. And everywhere people
seemed so diligent. I couldn't communicate with anybody. I was in a
different world.''
The Japanese team arrived in Berlin a full 45 days before the
start of the Games on Aug. 1. But Juan Carlos Zabala of Argentina,
the defending marathon champion and Olympic record holder (2:31:36),
was already training there and had become a great favorite of the
Germans. Sohn was a virtual unknown, and on the entry lists, he was
Kitei Son, a Japanese. He bristled at this loss of nationality, and
throughout his stay in Germany tried vainly to make people understand
he was a Korean. He signed his name in Korean script and even
sketched a tiny map of Korea alongside his signature. But his
country, once the Hermit Kingdom, was unknown to the Europeans.
As other national teams arrived, Sohn made new friends, among them
the famous American sprinter Jesse Owens. ''He was the first black
man I had seen with my own eyes, and though at first we couldn't
understand each other, we practiced together every day and became
friends,'' says Sohn. ''I carried a little dictionary with me so that
at least I knew when to say yes and no.'' The Hitler Games ultimately
became the Jesse Owens Games, and the black American's feat of
winning four gold medals under the glare of the Fuhrer would dominate
the world stage. But Sohn had a mission as well. He hoped to show the
world there were also champions in Korea. By the end of these Games,
he said to himself, he would be recognized as Sohn Kee Chung, Korean.
In this, unfortunately, he was sadly mistaken.
The marathon was run on Aug. 9, the last day of track and field.
The Germans called the event ''der klassische Lauf,'' the ''classic
race,'' a test of strength and stamina that would evoke for Germans
visions of the glory of ancient Greece. The new golden age, Hitler
told his subjects, would be theirs. And yet no German figured to win
this marathon. The best the master race could summon forth was one
Eduard Braesicke, who would finish 29th. But Zabala, the Argentinean,
had been adopted as a surrogate German.
Ernest Harper of England, who in 1926 had won the international
cross- country championship, was also a serious contender, although
at 34, he was thought to be past his prime. And the three Finnish
runners, Erkki Tamila, Vaino Muinonen and Mauno Tarkiainen, were held
in special regard, primarily because they were coached by the
legendary Paavo Nurmi, winner of 12 Olympic medals -- nine gold,
three silver -- in the 1920s. The Finns were thought to be master
tacticians. They ran strictly as a team, wearing down the opposition
with the demoralizing practice of alternating the lead while deciding
among themselves who should be the ultimate winner.
There were 56 entrants from 27 nations in the Berlin marathon and
they would follow the course out of the stadium, west along the Havel
River, across the Grunewald and then northeast to a halfway point at
the end of the long Avus motor racetrack. The runners would then turn
around and head back to the stadium, reentering through a tunnel
beneath the stands.
There were 100,000 spectators in the stands and a million more
lining the streets outside when Hitler and other Nazi party leaders
arrived. The race started at the stroke of three, and Zabala
immediately assumed the lead. At 2 1/2 miles the Argentinean was 30
seconds ahead of Portugal's Manuel Dias, and after five miles, he had
pulled 45 seconds ahead. Just past nine miles, he was a full 1:40 in
front of the pack. Dias was still in second place, but an improbable
pair, Harper and Sohn, were gaining on him.
Sohn and Harper had run together almost from the start, and they
were rapidly establishing themselves as crowd favorites because of
their eccentricities. Harper's sandy hair was immaculately coiffed,
yet he ran with the contorted expression of a man on the rack. Sohn's
deadpan was unchanged from start to finish, but his shoes were out
of the ordinary. They were made of white cloth and fashioned like
sandals so that the big toe had a separate compartment. Experts later
speculated that these were some sort of diabolical running shoes, the
products of painstaking Japanese research. In fact, says Sohn, they
were really just ordinary Japanese shoes. ''We had to buy our own
shoes, so I got the cheapest I could find,'' he says.
Though Sohn spoke no English and Harper spoke neither Korean nor
Japanese, the two literally kept up a running conversation. ''We were
competitors, but Harper was a true sportsman,'' says Sohn. ''Zabala
had set such a fast pace, Harper didn't want me to feel panic. He
kept saying, 'Slow, slow, slow.' I could understand, 'slow,' and I
felt to be polite I had to say something to him. So I'd wave and say,
'Yes, slow.' ''
The Finns held, almost arrogantly, to an even slower pace than
Harper and Sohn, convinced that Zabala would falter. Nam, Sohn's
countryman, was running with them. By 12 miles, Dias had dropped back
and Sohn and Harper were running in tandem in second place. At the
turnaround point, Zabala was timed at 1:11:29, 50 seconds ahead of
the odd couple. By 15 1/2 miles he had increased his lead to 90
seconds. But the pace had indeed sapped his strength, and just past
17 miles, Sohn, who had broken clear of his running mate -- ''I hope
Harper wasn't angry'' -- passed Zabala. Then, within seconds, so did
Harper. Zabala dropped out of the race two miles later.
Sohn was 16 seconds ahead of Harper at 19 miles, with Nam and the
Finns moving up on the Englishman. By 20 miles, Sohn was up by 30
seconds over Harper and at 25 miles, he was a minute and a half
ahead, while Nam was running a strong solo third.
Sohn entered the stadium tunnel alone. He could hear the
trumpeters heralding his approach, and when he burst into the sunlit
stadium and heard the tremendous roar of the crowd, he felt a rush of
energy. To be worthy of the ovation, he lowered his head and sprinted
to the finish line. ''We weren't very scientific about running in
those days, so I had a lot of strength left,'' he says. His winning
time of 2:29:20 set a new Olympic record. Harper limped into the
stadium about a minute later with Nam at his heels. And that was the
order of their finish.
On the victory stand, with Hitler looking down on them, and the
Japanese anthem being played, the two Koreans lowered their heads,
refusing to acknowledge the raising of the flag of the Rising Sun. It
was a protest not lost on either their Japanese masters or the Nazi
hosts, who were even then courting Japan as an ally. But the huge
crowd in the stadium cheered Sohn, or Kitei Son as they knew him, for
what he was -- a champion.
Afterward Sohn courageously insisted in a press conference that he
was not Japanese and that his name was really Sohn Kee Chung, but
with a Japanese interpreting for him, this went unreported in the
press. Sohn came to the sad realization that no one cared about the
plight of his little country. Brazenly, he asked to see Hitler and to
his surprise, was granted an audience. But he was struck dumb in
Hitler's presence, so that when the dictator urged him to return to
his country and promote sports, Sohn could not speak his mind. ''What
I was going to say was, 'Mr. Hitler, I am a man without a country.'
But I held back. I don't think he would have understood, anyway,''
says Sohn.
The Japanese had, however, understood. Though Sohn had won a gold
medal for the Empire, there would be no celebration for him in Tokyo.
And any planned for him in Seoul would have been quickly suppressed
for fear of a national uprising. The Koreans recognized Sohn as a
national hero, and Seoul's leading Korean-language newspaper, Dong-A
Ilbo, splashed his triumph on the front pages. Over a caption
reading: ''Korean Feat in Berlin,'' the paper ran a photograph of
Sohn, eyes cast downward, on the victory stand. But the editors had
made one none-too-subtle change in that picture: They had erased the
Japanese flag from Sohn's sweatshirt. Jiro Minami, the Japanese
governor- general of Korea, dispatched police to the newspaper
office. Ten members of the staff were arrested and eight were
imprisoned for 40 days. Publication of the newspaper was suspended
for nine months.
Sohn would never run another marathon. After his graduation from
Yangjung, he was admitted as a law student to Meiji University in
Tokyo with the stipulation that he would never again compete in
track. Too famous now for the Japanese to persecute openly, he was
forced, at age 24, into an early athletic retirement.
Sohn was an indifferent law student. ''I would never have made a
good lawyer,'' he admits. When he graduated in 1940, he immediately
returned to Seoul and went to work in a bank. His activities remained
under strict government supervision during the war, for by now he had
become a symbol of Korean liberation. His dignity and his stature as
Korea's finest athlete were restored with the defeat of Japan in 1945
and the restoration, Koreans presumed, of their national identity.
But the country's suffering was far from over. The Japanese
oppressors had been cast out, but peace left Korea a nation divided
at the 38th parallel. And one war simply led to another; this one,
from 1950 to '53, was fought entirely on Korean soil. There is still
no united Korean nation, and Sohn, born in the north, is now a
citizen of the south. ''I can travel all over the world,'' he says,
''but I cannot return to my hometown.''
And travel all over the world he has. He quit his job at the bank
after the war and, supporting himself as an executive in various
business enterprises -- textiles, flour, ferryboats -- he returned to
the marathon, this time as a coach. He vowed that his pupils would do
what he could not -- give Korea a name in international sports. Here,
at least, he succeeded. One of his first runners, Suh Yon Bok, won
the 1947 Boston Marathon in a world-best 2:25:39, breaking Sohn's
best which had stood since 1935. Another Sohn protege, Ham Kee Yong,
had won at Boston in 1950. Lee Chong Hoon, also one of Sohn's
charges, finished fourth in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne and two
years later won the marathon at the second Asian Games. Lee also
became Sohn's son-in-law, marrying his only daughter.
Sohn himself carried the national flag at the head of South
Korea's first Olympic team in 1948, finally representing his country.
As a standing member of the Korean Olympic Committee, in 1981 he was
part of the delegation to the International Olympic Committee meeting
in Baden-Baden, West Germany, at which the '88 Games were awarded to
Seoul. He is also a member of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee
But there is yet some bitterness in his long life. For all of his
international connections, Sohn has not been able to persuade the IOC
that his name and nationality should be changed on the Olympic rolls,
although he hopes that the IOC will finally take action after the
Seoul Games. Also, Sohn was astonished when in June of this year Kim
Chong Ha, president of the Korean Amateur Sports Association (of
which Sohn is a consulting member), opposed Sohn's nomination as the
final Olympic torchbearer at the opening of the Seoul Games. Despite
Sohn's 52-year campaign to have his own and his country's names
restored to the Olympic roster of champions, Kim said he saw no
reason why such an old man who had run with the Japanese flag on his
uniform should enjoy such an honor. Kim's misguided remarks brought
both official and public wrath down upon him, and he soon withdrew
his opposition to Sohn.
A poll of South Korean sports leaders taken by Kim's own
organization had already established Sohn as the popular choice to
light the Olympic flame. While SLOOC has not yet named the final
runner, key committee members have privately expressed their
preference for Sohn. ''He is a national sports hero,'' says Kim Hyung
Dong, SLOOC's director of press and broadcasting operations. ''Most
Koreans want him to be the man.''
This ongoing controversy has left Sohn disillusioned enough to say
that even if he should be offered the honor of carrying the torch he
might refuse. His friends, however, consider such a possibility
remote. Sohn, they say, will carry the torch with tears of pride
streaming down his face.
Sohn is in his element on the days he spends with his old Olympic
cronies in a special room -- 501 -- set aside for them in the Korean
Amateur Sports Association building in downtown Seoul. The old men
gather to tell tall tales, recount past triumphs, rehash grievances
and deplore the news of the day.
The conversation in room 501 this bright sunny day is highly
animated, much of it centering on South Korea's 1-0 double-overtime
loss to Czechoslovakia in the President's Cup soccer matches at
Olympic Stadium the previous evening. Sohn gets to his feet and
reenacts the kick that might have won for the home team, his face
lighted at first with hope, then darkening with failure. The others
obviously look upon him as their leader, and he revels in the role.
Kang In Suk, a lightweight boxer on the '48 South Korean Olympic
team, points to a poster from those Games on the wall. ''These were
the first Olympics we Koreans competed in under our own flag,'' he
Sohn nudges Kang in the ribs. ''This man's opponents used to
shiver at the sight of him,'' he says, tousling the old boxer's hair.
''At least the Japanese opponents did.''
''This is an old man's club,'' says Kang. ''Our day is over. But
that man, that Sohn. . . .'' He searches for words. ''That man means
so much to Korea, to all of us. He is a hero. He is -- how shall I
say it -- invaluable.''
That he is. Sohn is also the embodiment of Korean sports, past and
present. It would be a pity if, in his country's finest hour in
international athletics, he should be denied a proper role. He would
carry that Olympic torch with honor. In fact, he has been carrying it
for more than 50 years.