After several attempts, Barcelona finally hosted the Summer Olympics of 1992.
In men athletics, Fermin Cacho won the 1500 metres beating the overwhelming favourite, Morocco´s Noureddine Morceli. Doing so he earnt Spain’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in a running event.
The men´s marathon was to be the last event of these Olympics. The course was point-to-point. It was mostly flat until kilometre 25, but later it became tougher, as runners had to get to the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic, at 147 metres above sea level. In the women´s marathon, using the same course one week earlier, Valentina Yegorova had won the gold for Russia in 2.32.41.
Scheduled on August 9th at 18.30, 112 athletes were ready for one of the toughest Olympic marathon courses yet. Europe and Africa were well represented, with 36 and 32 runners respectively. Among the marathoners present were the top 5 finalists in Seoul 1988 and the top 4 of the last World Athletics Championships, celebrated in Tokyo in 1991. Besides these potentially “favourites”, other nations that couldn´t qualify any athlete below the 2h16m threshold could register one runner each.
Hwang Young-Cho was born in Samcheok, South Korea. He moved to the marathon in 1991, after winning the Seoul Marathon at his debut in the distance. On that same year he won also the marathon´s gold in the Universiade. Already in 1992, he finished second in his next marathon attempt, in the Beppu Oita Marathon, in Japan. Just behind Mexican Dionisio Ceron (2.08.36), Hwang clocked a PB of 2.08.47, setting a new national record and getting a spot in the South Korean team. He was young and arrived at Barcelona with his sight on fighting for the medal positions.
Once the marathon started runners, aware of the difficult course and warm conditions, decided to take things easy. The 10k was crossed in 31.59, a similar time to the 31.55 run in the Olympics of Helsinki 1952. The lead pack had still 50 runners! At the front was Hwang, accompanied by the Japanese Koichi Morishita. Alongside a lot of familiar faces from Seoul 1988: Gelindo Bordin, gold for Italy, Douglas Wakiihuri, silver for Kenya and Hussein Ahmed Salah, bronze for Djibouti, among others.
The pace didn´t fasten much yet. The halfway point was reached in 1.07.22 with a group of 30 runners remaining at the front pack. At the 22.5k drinks station one of the Japanese runners, Hiromi Taniguchi, tangled and fell, losing a shoe. Bordin, just behind, managed to save him, but strained a muscle and was out of the race. The dream of repeating his victory from Seoul 1988 was over, and his marathon career too, as he retired immediately after Barcelona.
With the course entering Barcelona the number of spectators grew. By the 30k (1.34.42) positions were not clear yet. Several runners, mainly Asian, were still together. Getting to the 35k Morishita and Hwang had opened a gap of 11s with German runner Stephan Freigang, and a further 4s with Japanese runner, Takeyushi Nakayama, and Italian Salvatore Bettiol. It was time to ascend Montjuic. Its hard slopes could determine who was the strongest among them.
Hwang and Morishita raced side by side, crossing the 40k in 2.06.33. Taking advantage of a short and flat tunnel section Hwang managed to open finally a 20 metres gap. Behind them a similar duel was taking place between Freigang and Nakayama.
Thus, Hwang entered the stadium to the cheering crowds and claimed his deserved gold medal in 2.13.23. Morishita, entering 22s behind him, had to settle for the silver medal. After them, in a sprint finish, Freigang got the bronze, only 2s ahead of Nakayama, that was out of the podium again, after been fourth also in Seoul 1988. Nobody had been so close to the medals as Nakayama.
Despite the hard steeps of Montjuic, the second half of the marathon had been faster than the first one. From the 112 runners that started the marathon, 87 finished it, with 37 doing so under the 2.20.00 threshold. Because of the closing ceremony was scheduled at 21.15, only 2h and 45 minutes into the race, five athletes had to be redirected to an alternative finish line, just outside the Olympic Stadium.
Hwang Young-Cho won the second gold medal in marathon for South Korea, although he was the first in achieving Olympic glory under his own flag. As we already told in a previous post, Sohn Kee-Chung won in Berlin 1936 competing for Japan, as Korea was under Japanese occupation.
After Barcelona Hwang did not compete much. He placed fourth in Boston 1994, improving his PB to 2.08.09, and won the Asian Games title. Injured, he failed to classify into the South Korean team for Atlanta 1996, and decided to retire when he was only 26 years old.
Neither the other two medallists, Morishita nor Freigang, were able to shine in the international marathon scene after Barcelona 1992. Even when they had been the youngest medallists´ trio since the Olympics of Paris in 1900.
Our next Olympic stop will be Atlanta 1996, where a new set of marathoners was eager for Olympic glory.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.