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The Conquerors Won, Thanks to the Conquered
Hal Drake
October 28, 1968
The Japanese beat every nation of Southeast Asia in waging war, and history claims that they beat the whole world in the Olympic marathon of 1936. But the front-runner was really a patriotic Korean
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October 28, 1968

The Conquerors Won, Thanks To The Conquered

The Japanese beat every nation of Southeast Asia in waging war, and history claims that they beat the whole world in the Olympic marathon of 1936. But the front-runner was really a patriotic Korean

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The record books tell how a runner named Kitei Son won the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games for the greater glory of Imperial Japan. Well, the record books are wrong, as the man they called Kitei Son himself will tell you. The records are wrong because the real name of the man who won that race is Sohn Kee Chung, a proud Korean who did not and would not ever do anything for the glory of Korea's Japanese conquerors. He won the marathon all right, but he won it for Korea—and never mind what was decreed by those who tried to "Japanize" his country, who forbade Koreans to celebrate their national festivals, to wear their national dress or even to speak their own language.

Born 55 years ago in Sinuiju, which is just across the Yalu River from Manchuria, Sohn began running as a schoolboy during the Japanese occupation when everything was taught in Japanese and a Korean child had to learn his native tongue in secret. One of his teachers was a man named Il Sun Lee. Lee looked over the gangling, slightly frail youth in his elementary school class and thought he might make a good runner.

Together Lee and Sohn invented their training methods. To build wind, strength and stamina, they loaded Sohn's baggy paji work pants with sand and strapped rocks on his back until his legs became stalks of muscle. By the time he was 14, Sohn was the school's 5,000 and 10,000-meter champion.

When Sohn, at the age of 17, won a student marathon in remarkable time, Lee's ambition grew. Despite Japanese insistence that athletes from conquered territories such as Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria compete as Japanese, he was determined to get Sohn to the 1936 Olympic Games, and he succeeded.

There was another Korean on the Japanese team: a student named Nam Sung Yong, then living in Japan. In the trials before the Japanese team left for Berlin, Sohn raced Nam through the streets of downtown Tokyo and was beaten by several minutes. He had no real reason to believe he would do better at the Games. "It was a big world," he says, "and there were lots of fine runners in it."

Nevertheless he was full of hope as the team rode across Russia and Europe, arriving in Berlin 12 days after it left Tokyo. There, when asked to sign the official register, Sohn Kee Chung defiantly wrote his name in Korean and drew a small map of Korea beside his signature. It was one of many he drew during 20 days of training, whenever anyone asked him where he was from.

As he recovered from the tiring trip across Russia and recouped his wind, legs and timing, Sohn suddenly felt a surge of confidence. "I knew I was going to win," he says, but he was the only one in Berlin who did know it. Most experts were betting on the Argentinean, Juan Carlos Zabala, who had won at Los Angeles four years earlier. There was also a lean, durable Englishman named Ernest Harper. The Japanese? They had won only two track events in the entire history of the Olympics. They would be lucky if their marathon runners even finished.

The Games began with noisy pomp and ceremony. Uniformed Hitler Youth marched in a torchlight parade at the Lustgarten. The Olympic flame was carried from there to the stadium. Hitler ranted and thousands of arms thrust up in the standard salute to Aryan nationalism. But there was one non-Aryan in Berlin as fanatically nationalistic as any Nazi: the Korean Sohn Kee Chung.

At the start of the marathon the world's best distance runners were lined up against him: Zabala and Harper and an American named Ellison Myers (The Indian) Brown. There were the three Finns—Erkki Tamila, Vaino Moinonen and Mauno Tarkiainen. The starting gun released a flock of 50 marathoners in all. Their long course thrust out of the stadium, over an auto racetrack, out of the city, into the country and back—26 miles, 385 yards.

As expected, Zabala immediately flashed ahead. He was out to win big and better the record he had set in Los Angeles four years before. Sohn was in 20th place. Brown and the three Finns were ahead of him, and the Finns were using an alternate-lead technique that kept the freshest man near the front.

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Juan Carlos Zabala 1 0 0
Ernest Harper 1 0 0
Berlin 90 0 0
Tokyo 195 0 2
Japan 507 0 3