Long before American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, another poignant image of silent protest was etched into the conscience of Koreans — and largely forgotten everywhere else.
At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Korean Sohn Kee-chung stood with his head hung, hiding the rising-sun flag on his chest with a laurel plant as Japan’s national anthem filled the stadium to honor his marathon victory. The moment filled him with “unbearable humiliation,” he recounted in his autobiography, and marked the beginning of an anguished chapter in his life.
Worried that his triumph would spark an insurgence among ethnic Koreans, Japan — which ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 — forbade Sohn from competitive running, kept him under tight surveillance, and even used his celebrated status to recruit young Koreans for its war effort. Sohn called the recruiting the “greatest regret” of his life.
Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
Still, Sohn harbored no resentment toward his former oppressors in later years and dedicated his life to promoting “Olympism” — or peace through sports — particularly between Japan and Korea, his son, Chung-in, said in a recent interview.
“All he wished for was for both sides to recognize what happened in the past so we don’t repeat it, and instead look forward,” he said.
Photo: Kyodo via Reuters
With bilateral relations at a nadir today, mostly over wartime atrocities, Sohn’s message remains relevant, said Zenichi Terashima, professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Meiji University, who published the runner’s biography two years ago.
For all of Sohn’s efforts at reconciliation, Japan has had an awkward relationship with him and his legacy, Terashima said, speaking alongside his son.
Sohn is a national hero in South Korea, but few in Japan have heard of him, even though his medal remains the only Olympic gold for the men’s marathon in Japan.
Only an eagle-eyed visitor to the new Olympic museum in Tokyo will notice both mentions of Sohn: one among a display of Japanese gold medallists and another in a tiny sign accompanying the Olympic torch used in the Seoul Games in 1988 describing him as the final torch relay runner.
“He’s an uncomfortable topic in Japan,” said Terashima, who said he felt compelled to publish Sohn’s life story amid what he perceived as a resurgence of historical revisionism among Japan’s conservative elite.
Sohn scrupulously avoided politics and extended an olive branch wherever he saw a chance.
When Japanese runner Shigeki Tanaka won the Boston marathon in 1951, Sohn sent him a congratulatory message, calling his win “a win for Asia,” his son said. He signed off using the Japanese transliteration of his name — Son Kitei — a profound gesture from a man who insisted on signing autographs in Korean even in 1936.
It should have been a bitter moment. The previous year, Sohn had coached the Korean team that swept first, second and third places at the marquee race, only to be denied entry in 1951 as the Korean War raged.
At Seoul 1988, Sohn had secretly planned to gift a replica of the ancient Corinthian helmet given to him as Berlin’s marathon winner to a Japanese runner if they won a medal, his son recalled.
Sohn was ecstatic about Japan and South Korea’s co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, instructing his son to help make it a success so “the past could be left in the past for a fresh start,” Chung-in said. Sohn died a few months after the event.
The thaw in bilateral ties proved short-lived, but “my father died a happy man,” Chung-in said.
The current diplomatic chill has spilled over into the Olympics in the form of a territorial dispute over the labelling of a set of islands — both at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 and this year.
But Terashima says the “Olympism” that Sohn advanced thrives in the activism of Naomi Osaka today and the borderless bonds shared by speedskaters Nao Kodaira and Lee Sang-hwa, whose emotional embrace after their race at Pyeongchang, draped in the Japanese and Korean flags, moved many on both sides of the sea.
“My father liked to say that in war, whether you win or lose, if a bullet hits you, you die,” Chung-in said. “But that in sports, even if you lose, you can still be friends.”
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