The sweet and the bitter: a Korean story of Olympic gold. Sohn Kee Chung was the first Korean ever to win an Olympic gold medal. But his marathon victory in the 1936 Berlin games brought both triumph and sadness. The medal was won for Japan - then the colonial ruler of Korea. Today, he is fighting to credit the medal to his nation, and holds a place of honor as the Olympics open in Seoul.
The greatest moment in Sohn Kee Chung's life is also the saddest. At his time of triumph, Mr. Sohn was a completely unknown Korean marathon runner who had never competed outside his native land. He astonished experts at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning the race in record time to become Korea's first Olympic gold medalist.Skip to next paragraph
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But in the Olympic record books, the name of the winner of the Berlin Games marathon is not his. And the victor's country is not listed as Korea.
Sohn ran as a citizen of the Empire of Japan, the colonial ruler of Korea. And his victory is recorded as that of Kitei Son, the Japanese name imposed by his rulers.
From the day of his triumph, Sohn was a Korean national hero.
He will occupy a place of honor in the Olympic Stadium when the XXIV Olympiad opens in Seoul on Saturday. The Olympic organizers have kept the identity of the final bearer of the Olympic torch a secret, but Sohn may well have that singular honor.
Sitting in his modest Seoul apartment on a recent summer morning, the 76-year-old Sohn recalled the race.
``I was confident I could win. But when the race started, I saw all those good runners passing me by ... After I passed the 10-kilometer point, I saw athletes dropping out of the race ... So I started thinking `Perhaps I can manage this race,''' he said.
Some two miles from the finish, the Korean distance runner surged into the lead. At the moment of victory, Sohn was joyous. ``For four years I'd trained for that goal. If I had lost, those four years would have been for nothing. That satisfaction is very difficult for someone who has never been in that situation to understand. My first time in an international event - and winning it.''
Sohn's feeling of elation was short-lived.
``When I got up on the stand and the national anthem played and the flags went up - that's when I felt the sorrow of someone who doesn't have a country ... It was I - a Korean - who won the race. And yet it was Japan's national anthem and Japan's flag,'' he said.
The young athlete was unprepared for the shock. He was ignorant of the world outside Korea. He readily admits that even the highly political overtones of the Berlin Olympics were lost to him. He was unaware even of how black American Jesse Owens' four gold medals spoiled what Adolf Hitler hoped would be a showcase of Nazi prowess.
``We didn't even know there was such a [medal] ceremony afterwards,'' Sohn says of himself and six other Korean members of the Japanese team. As the flags went up, he remembers second-place finisher Ernest Harper looking straight ahead at the British flag.
``But myself and the third place winner, also a Korean, had our heads down. We were crying. It was not because of the victory. Those were genuine tears of sadness and frustration that it wasn't our victory.''
Sohn and his fellow Koreans tried to salvage this bittersweet win as an opportunity to express their opposition to Japanese rule. In Berlin, Sohn signed his name in Korean script and attempted to explain, to mostly uncomprehending Western reporters, about the occupied status of his country.
Korea, a proud and ancient land, had been brought under Japanese colonial domination in 1910. The Japanese enforced a policy of supressing even Korean culture, teaching only Japanese in the schools and forcing Koreans to use Japanese names.
The victories of Sohn and the bronze medalist, Nam Sung Young, were celebrated back home not as a Japanese, but as a Korean triumph. Korean nationalists were careful to point out their Korean origins.
The prominant newspaper Dong-A Ilbo (still Korea's leading daily) published a wire photo of Sohn from which it deliberately removed the Japanese rising-sun emblem on his uniform. This act of defiance became a major issue. Staff members were arrested and the paper suspended from publication.
Today, Sohn still carries himself with the proud bearing of an athlete. He receives a modest government pension in honor of his achievement. He has served as a member of the Korean Olympic Committee. His gold medal is on public display.
Still he cannot forget.
He has waged a one-man campaign, though with the support of his country, to have his name, and country of origin officially changed in the Olympic records. For legal reasons, it is unlikely he will succeed.
Yet the pride which Sohn feels for his country's hosting of the 1988 Summer Games clearly eases his pain. In Seoul, Sohn Kee Chung will be fully representing his nation as an Olympic champion.