Sohn Kee-chung

Sohn Kee-chung (Korean: 손기정, Sohn Kee-chung; Korean pronunciation: [son.kidʑʌŋ]; August 29, 1912[1][2] – November 15, 2002) was an Olympic athlete and long-distance runner. He became the first ethnic Korean to win a medal at the Olympic Games, winning gold in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was a Korean national, but he had to compete as a member of the Japanese delegation because Korea was under Japanese colonization at the time.[3] Sohn set an Olympic record of 2 hours 29 minutes 19.2 seconds.[4]

Sohn Kee-chung
Sohn Kee-chung 1936.jpg
Sohn Kee-chung (1936).
Personal information
Native name손기정
NationalityJapan, later South Korea
Born(1912-08-29)August 29, 1912
Yeng Byen City, Heian-hokudō, Chōsen, Japan (current-day Sinuiju, North Korea)
DiedNovember 15, 2002(2002-11-15) (aged 90)
Seoul, South Korea
Height1.70 m (5 ft 7 in)
Weight60 kg (132 lb)
Korean name
Revised RomanizationSon Gijeong
McCune–ReischauerSon Kijŏng
Now coachingHam Kee-Yong, Suh Yun-Bok
Achievements and titles
Olympic finals
Medal record

Sohn competed under the Japanese name Kitei Son, as Korea was under the colonial rule of the Japanese Empire during his career.[3][4]

Early lifeEdit

Sohn Kee-chung was born in what is now Sinuiju, North P'yŏngan Province, North Korea, which was occupied by Japan at the time. He studied at Yangjeong High School (양정고등학교) in Seoul and Meiji University in Tokyo, where he graduated in 1940.

Athletics careerEdit

Sohn first competed in the 1,500 and 5,000 m, but turned to longer distances after winning an eight-mile race in October 1933. Between 1933 and 1936, he ran 12 marathons; he finished in the top three on all occasions and won nine.[3] On November 3, 1935 in Tokyo, Japan, Sohn set a world record in the marathon with a time of 2:26:42, which broke the world record 2:26:44 set by Yasuo Ikenaka of Japan at the Berlin Olympic trials on April 3, 1935, in Tokyo, Japan.[5][6] According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, the record remained unbroken until Sohn's own trainee, Suh Yun-Bok, won the 1947 Boston Marathon.[5][7] Unofficially, he even ran a marathon with a time under 2:24 on April 27, 1935 in Seoul, South Korea.

1936 Berlin OlympicsEdit

Sohn, competing for the Empire of Japan, won the gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in the marathon. He ran the 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi) course in 2:29:19.2, breaking the Olympic record.[4] His Korean teammate Nam Sung-yong took the bronze medal. As Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially credited Japan with Sohn's gold and Nam's bronze in the 1936 Summer Olympics medal count.

On December 9, 2011, the IOC recognized Sohn's Korean nationality in his official profile. It cited his efforts to sign his Korean name and his stress on Korea's status as a separate nation during interviews. The move was part of the Korean Olympic Committee's repeated requests to acknowledge Sohn's background. However, the IOC ruled out changing the nationality and registered name per official records to prevent historical distortions.[8]

Political significanceEdit

Under orders from Tokyo, Sohn Kee-chung had to compete using the Latin alphabet name of Son Kitei. It is the romanization of the Japanese pronunciation of his Korean name in hanja.[9]

Sohn refused to acknowledge the Japanese anthem while it was played at his award ceremony and later told reporters that he was ashamed to run for Japan.[3] When the Dong-a Ilbo published a photograph of Sohn at the medal ceremony, it altered the image to remove the Japanese flag from his running tunic. The act enraged the Japanese Governor-General of Korea Minami Jiro in Seoul. The Kempetai military police imprisoned eight people connected with the newspaper and suspended its publication for nine months.[10][11]

Hellenic prizeEdit

For winning the marathon, Sohn was to have received an ancient Corinthian helmet from the 8th century BC, which was discovered at Olympia, Greece, and later purchased by a newspaper in Athens to give as an Olympic award. However, the IOC believed that presenting such a valuable gift to a runner would violate its amateur rules. The helmet was placed in a Berlin museum and remained there for 50 years. It was finally presented to Sohn in 1986.[12][13] Sohn donated the helmet to the National Museum of Korea, which designated it as the 904th and only Western National Treasure.[14] There was initially a plan to award replicas of this helmet to the winners of the 2006 Sohn Kee-chung marathon,[15] but they eventually got only a chance to wear a replica.[16]

Later lifeEdit

The Corinthian helmet that was awarded to Sohn Kee-chung, on display at the National Museum of Korea.

Sohn spent the remainder of his career in South Korea coaching other notable runners such as Suh Yun-Bok, the winner of the Boston Marathon in 1947;[3] Ham Kee-Yong, winner of the Boston Marathon in 1950; and Hwang Young-Cho, who was the gold medalist of the 1992 Summer Olympics marathon, and whom Sohn Kee-chung especially went to Barcelona to see. Sohn also became the Chairman of the Korean Sporting Association. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, he was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch in the stadium during the opening ceremony.[3][17]

Sohn authored an autobiography entitled My Motherland and Marathon (나의조국과 마라톤).

He was honoured with the Moran Class of the Korean Order of Civil Merit (Hangul:국민훈장).

Death and legacyEdit

Sohn died at midnight on November 15, 2002, at age 90 from pneumonia. He was buried at the Daejeon National Cemetery. The Sohn Kee-chung Memorial Park in Seoul was established in his honor.[17] He was also posthumously made a Grand Cordon (Blue Dragon) of the Order of Sport Merit.

In popular cultureEdit

The historical Korean drama Bridal Mask (각시탈) referred to Sohn Kee-chung's Olympic win and to the arrest of the Korean journalists in its 21st episode.[18] In a parade scene, spectators wave Japanese flags to a Korean boxer parading through on a jeep. Despite the joyous occasion, the boxer's face remains staid and never smiles, and the Japanese flag is on his shirt. The boxer just won an international sports title, a first for a Korean. However, the Japanese occupation makes the boxer represent Japan, rather than Korea, and claims that victory.

As the parade continues, spectators suddenly unveil their Korean flags, which they got the night before, wave them, and shout for Korea. In solidarity with the crowd, the boxer then rips the Japanese flag from his shirt. With tearful eyes and a determined face, he raises his fists and repeatedly cheers with the crowd, "Manseh!", a pro-Korean independence slogan.

The reporter Song takes a picture of the emotional scene. The picture appears in the newspaper's front page the next day, and government officials learn about the incident. The picture also angers Kimura, a high-ranking police officer. At the police station, he orders officers to arrest the boxer and to punish him harshly for disrespecting Japan. The police therefore arrest him and the journalists, and the government close the newspaper.

Sohn also appears in Zainichi author Yu Miri's semi-autobiographical novel The End of August (『8月の果て』) about her grandfather, Yang Im-deuk, who was a rival of Sohn's when they were young.

Actors who played Sohn Kee-chungEdit

  • Portrayed by Yoon Hee-won in the 2011 film My Way.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lewis, Mike (November 29, 2002). "Sohn Kee-chung: Korean athlete whose Olympic protest made him a national hero". The Guardian. Retrieved April 24, 2013.
  2. ^ "World Marathon Rankings for 1935". Association of Road Racing Statisticians. September 20, 2009. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Son Gi-Jeong.
  4. ^ a b c Longman, Jeré (November 14, 2009). "Korean Olympic Hero Championed Liberty". The New York Times. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  5. ^ a b "12th IAAF World Championships In Athletics: IAAF Statistics Handbook. Berlin 2009" (PDF). Monte Carlo: IAAF Media & Public Relations Department. 2009. p. 565. Archived from the original on August 6, 2009. Retrieved July 29, 2009.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ Men's World Record Times – 1932 to 1938. Retrieved on June 9, 2015.
  7. ^ However, Suh’s performance was set on a course considered to be short by some[who?] road racing authorities, which means Sohn's world record would have lasted until the early 1950s. (See the Association of Road Racing Statistician's web pages regarding the Boston Marathon and World Best Progressions.)
  8. ^ The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – Late Recognition for Korean Olympic Athlete Sohn Kee-chung. (December 16, 2011). Retrieved on 2015-06-09.
  9. ^ Sohn Kee-chung.
  10. ^ Bull, Andy (August 27, 2011). "The forgotten story of Sohn Kee-chung, Korea's Olympic hero". The Guardian.
  11. ^ Athletics at the 1936 Berlin Summer Games: Men's Marathon.
  12. ^ James Markham (August 18, 1986). "GERMANS LOOK BACK, GINGERLY, TO THE '36 GAMES". New York Times.
  13. ^ Marathon Winner in '36 Berlin Games Will Be Given Prize—50 Years Late. Reuters. August 10, 1986
  14. ^ "Ancient Greek Bronze Helmet". National Museum of Korea. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  15. ^ "손기정 평화마라톤 우승자에 '청동투구' 수여(Korean)". The Hankyoreh. September 20, 2006.
  16. ^ "'손기정 평화마라톤' 임진각서 열려(Korean)". Media Daum/Yonhap News Agency. November 11, 2006.
  17. ^ a b "Sohn Kee-chung". Korea Times. Retrieved November 4, 2010.
  18. ^ "[Spoiler] "Bridal Mask" boxer recalls Son Gi-jeong". HanCinema. HanCinema. August 15, 2012. Retrieved February 17, 2015.

External linksEdit

Preceded by
  Yasuo Ikenaka
Men's Marathon World Record Holder
November 3, 1935 – April 19, 1947
Succeeded by
  Suh Yun-Bok
Olympic Games
Preceded by
Rafer Johnson
Final Summer Olympic Torchbearer
with Chung Sun-Man & Kim Won-tak

1988 Seoul
Succeeded by
Antonio Rebollo