At the finish line of the 1936 Olympic marathon, 110,000 Berliners cheered for the champion, Kitei Son, of Japan. But the runner who received those cheers knew that there was no such person.
That runner has always considered himself Kee Chung Sohn of Korea. Because of the 1910 Japanese occupation of his country, Sohn had been told to run under the Japanese flag and a Japanese name, or not run at all. He now says he competed for himself and his occupied land, and that it was his hatred of Japan that spurred him to a world-best time of 2:29:19. At a 50th-anniversary ceremony this summer in Berlin, Sohn recalled, "I had run with my head high, though carrying the Japanese flag on my chest in abhorrence. When the band played the Japanese anthem and the Rising Sun was raised at the awards ceremony, my heart almost burst out."
Korea was separated from Japan after World War II, and for four decades Sohn has campaigned to have his rightful name placed in the Olympic records. The International Olympic Committee has refused to expunge Kitei Son. But recently, at the request of the Korean Federation of Los Angeles and others, a plaque of champions in Culver City became the first Olympic monument to undergo a name change. Sohn, who is now 74 and still runs a mile a day near his home in Seoul, attended the rededication. "Fifty years ago I was a man without a country," he said. "This means more to me than when I received the gold medal."
Sohn may enjoy some further belated glory. There is hope that Culver City's action will encourage full and official restitution. And Sohn, a member of the Korean Olympic Committee, is a leading candidate to be torchbearer at the '88 Games.