Sohn Kee-chung, an ethnic Korean marathon runner, is a poignant reminder of his country’s dark past. His record-breaking performance in the 1936 Berlin Games was widely celebrated, but there was one caveat to those looking on at his success from home — Sohn had no choice but to represent the Japanese empire.
Born in 1912, just two years after Japan’s annexation of Korea, Sohn had only ever known living under colonial rule when he entered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Still, a dedicated nationalist, he signed the roster for the Games with his Korean name along with a small drawing of the Korean flag. Officially, he was recognized as a member of the Japanese delegation with the romanized Japanese name “Son Kitei.” To this day, Sohn is listed on the official Olympics website with these attributes.
During the marathon event, Sohn finished first with a time of 2 hours, 29 minutes and 19.2 seconds, setting a new world record and becoming the first Asian athlete to win the quadrennial event, The Korea Herald reported. His Korean teammate Nam Sung-yong, registered as “Nan Shoryu,” finished in third place. As the Japanese anthem played in the background, both were seen bowing their heads at the podium, a stark contrast to the smiling silver medalist, Great Britain’s Ernie Harper. Sohn was also captured covering up the Japanese flag adorning the center of his shirt with a small oak tree — something his teammate later revealed he wished he could have done as well, according to The Guardian. While Sohn tried to tell reporters about his Korean heritage, his Japanese guides refused to translate any such remarks.
The win, along with the following display of protest, served as a point of pride for Korea. Dong-A Ilbo, a Korean newspaper, published a photo of Sohn that was altered to hide the flag. The Japanese government, which aimed to smother Korean cultural identity, flagged down eight of its journalists in retaliation — an incident that later became known as the “Japanese Flag Erasure Incident.” There are various accounts of what happened to the journalists, from arrest and imprisonment to torture.
It was only after World War II, when Korea gained its independence, that Sohn was able to represent his country in official capacity. In the 1948 London Games, the first time Korea was able to participate as an independent nation, Sohn carried the Korean flag as a hero.
In the 1988 Seoul Games, which came after the division of the country, Sohn proudly carried the torch into the stadium during the opening ceremony as spectators cheered him on. At 76 years old, his excitement bore through his run, a moment that was reminiscent of the celebration he was deprived of in his youth.
Before his passing in 2002, Sohn was able to witness a marathon victory for South Korea when he attended the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Hwang Young-cho took home the gold, much to the satisfaction of many Koreans at the time as he outperformed Japanese runner Koichi Morishita, according to The New York Times. Upon returning to Seoul, Hwang presented his gold medal to Sohn.
“Now I can die without any regrets,” Sohn said, according to “The Complete Book of the Olympics” by David Wallechinsky.
Sporting events have long been used as platforms for protest. In 2016, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, many athletes followed suit to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Likewise, the story of Sohn, though nearly a century old, instills that same sense of determination in the battle against systems of oppression.