Korean Gold Medalist’s Olympic Spirit Lessons From “Japan” Live


YOKOHAMA, Japan, July 14 (Reuters) – Long before US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, yet another poignant image of silent protest was etched in consciousness Koreans – and largely forgotten everywhere else.

At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Korean Sohn Kee-chung stood with his head bowed, hiding the flag of the rising sun on his chest with a laurel plant as Japan’s national anthem filled the stadium to honor his victory in the marathon. The moment filled him with “unbearable humiliation,” he recounted in his autobiography, and marked the start of a distressed chapter in his life.

Fearing that his triumph could spark an insurgency among ethnic Koreans, Japan – which ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 – banned Sohn from participating in competitions, kept him under close surveillance, and even used his famous statute to recruit young Koreans for his war effort. Sohn called the recruitment the “biggest regret” of his life.

Yet Sohn has had no resentment towards his former oppressors in recent years and has dedicated his life to promoting “Olympism” – or peace through sport – especially between Japan and Korea, his son, Chung-in, to Reuters in a recent interview.

“All he wanted was for both sides to recognize what happened in the past so that we don’t repeat it and instead look to the future,” he said.

“Uncomfortable SUBJECT”

With bilateral relations at an all-time low today, mainly because of wartime atrocities, Sohn’s message remains relevant, said Zenichi Terashima, professor emeritus at Meiji University in Tokyo, who published the biography of the runner two years ago.

Despite Sohn’s best reconciliation efforts, Japan has had a difficult relationship with him and his legacy, Terashima said, speaking alongside his son.

Sohn is a national hero in South Korea, but little in Japan

have heard of him, although his medal remains the only Olympic gold medal for the men’s marathon in Japan.

Only an eagle-eyed visitor to the New Olympic Museum in Tokyo will notice the two mentions of Sohn: one among an exhibit of Japanese gold medalists and another in a small panel accompanying the Olympic torch used in the Seoul Games. in 1988, describing him as the last torch relay runner.

“It’s an uncomfortable subject in Japan,” said Terashima, who said he felt compelled to publish Sohn’s life story amid what he saw as a resurgence of historical revisionism among the Japanese conservative elite.


Sohn scrupulously avoided politics and held out an olive branch wherever he saw an opportunity.

When Japanese runner Shigeki Tanaka won the Boston Marathon in 1951, Sohn sent him a congratulatory message, calling his victory a “victory for Asia,” his son said. He signed 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 year before, Sohn had coached the Korean team that swept the first, second and third places in the marquee race, only to be denied entry in 1951 as the Korean War raged.

In Seoul 1988, Sohn had secretly planned to gift a replica of the ancient Corinthian helmet given to him as the winner of the Berlin Marathon to a Japanese runner if he won a medal, his son recalls.

Sohn was delighted with the co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup between Japan and South Korea, asking his son to help make it a success so that “the past can be left to the past for a long time. new start, ”Chung-in said. Sohn died a few months after the event.

The thaw in bilateral relations turned out to be short-lived, but “my father died a happy man,” Chung-in said.

The current diplomatic chill has spread to the Olympics in the form of a territorial dispute over the labeling of a set of islands – both at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 and this year.

But Terashima says that the “Olympism” that Sohn advanced thrives in Naomi Osaka’s activism today and the borderless bonds shared by speed skaters Nao Kodaira and Lee Sang-hwa, whose emotional embrace after their run to Pyeongchang, draped in the Japanese and Korean flags, moved a lot to 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.”

Report by Chang-Ran Kim. Editing by Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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