“The human body can do so much. Then your heart and spirit must take over”.
Berlin was selected to host the 1936 Olympic Games over Barcelona, two years before the Nazi party got to power in Germany. Hitler saw them as an ideal opportunity to promote his ideas about racial supremacy and antisemitism. Some countries threatened to boycott the Games, when it was said that Jews athletes wouldn´t be allowed to participate. Nonetheless, concessions made from the German side decided the United States to finally compete, with more countries following suit. These concessions were not fruitful, as Germany was able to avoid his Jewish athletes from competition, and most other countries decided to apart them, trying no to offend the regime.
The 1936 Olympics would be the first figuring the torch relay, with the torch ignited in the temple of Hera in ancient Olympia, tradition that has survived almost exactly until our days. There were also the first Games to have live television coverage, although uniquely in certain locations. Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the Games, with the film “Olympia” as a result.
During the opening ceremony and heading the Greek delegation was none other than Spiridon Louis, to mark the 40th anniversary of his marathon victory in Athens, in 1896. He was escorted to Hitler´s presence to offer him an olive branch from the Sacred Grove of Zeus in Olympia. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, and already in failing health, couldn´t enjoy the moment.
Sohn was born in Sinuiju, North Korea, in 1912, at a time where the Korean peninsula was under Japanese occupation. In the school it soon became obvious that he was talented for running and sent to Seoul to continue with his training and studies. He started competing in short distances, running his first marathon at 17. He would like the distance, running a total of 12 marathons over the next 5 years, and winning 9 of them. In November 1935 in Tokyo he managed to win the marathon in 2.26.42, a world record which would stay in place until 1947, and 5 minutes faster than the time used by Zabala to win the gold medal in the Olympics of 1932.
As mentioned earlier Korea was under Japanese occupation, so Sohn was only able to go to the Olympics defending the Japanese flag and using an iteration of his own name in Japanese, Son Kitei. It was the same case for the other two members of the Japanese marathon team.
On August 9th there were 59 athletes ready for the race. The Argentinian Zabala, one of the main favourites and defending champion, went strongly from start, abandoning the Olympic Stadium in first place. After 3 miles Sohn was 90 seconds behind Zabala, accompanied by the English Ernest Harper, who knowing of the early impetus of Zabala appeased Sohn to take things easy. As predicted by Harper, Zabala after 19 miles fell exhausted, with Sohn and Harper passing him.
Harper started having problems with blisters on his feet, giving Sohn an unexpected advantage and the lead. At mile 20 he had 25 seconds over Harper, with a group of 3 athletes more than 3 minutes behind. Recovering positions was other of the Korean-Japanese, Nam Sung-yong (under his Japanese name of Nan Shoryu).
Entering into the Olympic Stadium, with over 100 thousand spectators, Sohn won the race in 2.29.19, setting a new Olympic record and winning the first gold medal for Japan in an Olympic Game. It is the only time that a marathon world-record holder wins also the Olympic marathon. Harper was able to defend his second place, and win the silver 2 minutes later, with Nam claiming the third place shortly afterwards, after moving from a 33th place at the 10k marker.
During the medals ceremony both Korean bowed their heads during the Japanese anthem, to show politely their shame of having their nation under Japanese occupancy.
Sohn retired after the Olympics, at 24, becoming coach of the Korean marathon team after the war, and leading the first athletes ever to wear the Korean flag in their kit.
His career as coach was also very successful. He trained Suh Yun-bok, who won the Boston marathon in 1947 breaking his own world record in the process (2.25.39), and the team that got the top three places in the same marathon in 1950.
In the Olympics of 1988 he was honoured carrying the Olympic flame into the stadium in Seoul. This would not be his last honour. Still coaching, during the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, his protégé Hwang Young-jo won the second Korean Olympic gold in marathon.
Sohn Kee-chung, a marathon legend, as athlete and coach.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.