Gold Medal Olympian Marathon Runner, Sohn Kee-chung

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Korea’s great marathoner Sohn Kee-chung (손기정, 1912-2002) marked the world’s record of 2 hours, 29 minutes, 19 seconds in marathon at the 11th Summer Olympiad Berlin held on August 9, 1936. Under the Japanese colonial rule, he took part in the Olympic Marathon as a member of the Japanese team, wearing a shirt with its flag. But he was determined to show the entire world that he is a Korean by winning the gold medal.

Born an athlete, Sohn won a 5,000-meter race held in Sinuiju in his early teens, beating numerous adult athletes. Since taking second place in a marathon hosted in 1932 by the Dong-A Ilbo, a leading daily newspaper, he achieved outstanding results in many long races.

In both the first two marathon games for selecting members of national team for the Berlin Olympics held in March and November 1935 in Tokyo, he won the race by recording 2:26:14. In the third game for the same purpose held in May 1936, he took second place after Nam Seung-ryong, another Korean athlete. But the Japanese authorities did not want to recognize this fact, and it held a final selection games in Berlin prior to the Olympics; however, Sohn and Nam took the first and second places again.

Despite being an unknown new athlete on the world stage, Sohn Kee-chung defeated front-runners such as Argentina’s Jabella (who was the gold medalist at the prior Los Angeles Olympics), the United Kingdom’s Harper and Finland’s Tamira. But when the Japanese flag was raised and Japan’s national anthem was played at the awards ceremony, he looked gloomy as he was honored with Japanese flag and anthem instead of those of Korea.

In its article on Sohn’s gold medal receiving ceremony dated August 25, 1936, the Dong-A Ilbo intentionally erased the Japanese flag from his picture, resulting in forced suspension of its publication for about 9 months. Along with the gold medal, he was awarded with an ancient Greek bronze helmet as a supplementary prize, but it was not given to him at that time and was kept by German Olympic Organizing Committee until it was delivered to Sohn in 1986. As he donated it to the Korean government in 1994, the helmet is now housed in the National Museum of Korea.

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