The First Korean Olympian | Sohn Kee-chung 손기정, 1912-2002

By: Minsoo Kang

January 25, 2018

With the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February of 2018, the second such event in Korea after the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, it would be timely to remember the very first Korean to win an Olympic medal.

It is well known that while Adolf Hitler wanted to use the Berlin Olympics of 1936 to showcase the physical superiority of Aryans, the great African-American athlete Jesse Owens ruined his plan by winning multiple gold medals. In Korea, the event is remembered as the occasion on which a Korean won the first medal, the gold for the marathon competition, which also had a racial and political dimension.

Sohn Kee-chung was born in 1912, near the city of Sinuiju in the northern province of North Pyongan. In the 1930s, he emerged as a top athlete in long-distance running, breaking the world record for the marathon in 1935, at an event held in Tokyo, Japan. His attainment of the gold medal in Berlin was celebrated in Korea (another Korean, Nam Sung-yong, won the bronze in the event), but it was a bittersweet moment for the people as well. Twenty-six years before, Korea had lost its sovereignty after being colonized by the Empire of Japan. As a result, the only way a talented Korean athlete like Sohn could participate in the Olympics was to join the Japanese delegation and compete under the Japanese flag. He was, in fact, not even allowed to use his own name as he was registered as Son Kitei, the Japanese pronunciation (そん きてい) of the Chinese characters (孫基禎) for Sohn Kee-chung.

There was some ambivalence about his victory among Koreans well. While many gleefully celebrated his achievement as an act of resistance against the Japanese regard of Koreans as racially inferior, some radical nationalists thought that Sohn should not have joined the Japanese team which they regarded as collaboration. Others found a creative way of both lauding Sohn and defying the Japanese imperial authority at the same time.

The August 24 issue of the Korean newspaper Donga ilbo carried the story of Sohn’s achievement, featuring a photograph of him at the award ceremony. Unbeknownst to the editors of the journal, a group of journalists stealthily put out a second edition of the issue, with a conspicuous change to the picture as they rubbed out the Japanese flag on Sohn’s uniform. The act caused one of the biggest scandals in the history of Korean journalism practiced under Japanese censorship as the enraged authorities imprisoned eight people involved in the incident and shut the newspaper down for eight months.

After the liberation of Korea in 1945, Sohn became a renowned coach of long-distance runners and served in various athletic organizations in South Korea. In 1972, Sohn returned to Germany to observe the Summer Olympics in Munich, where he was reunited with the famed filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who had filmed the Berlin Olympics for the Nazi regime.

     In 1988, at the age of seventy-six, Sohn was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch at the opening event of the Seoul Olympics.

     He passed away in November of 2002, a legendary figure in the history of Korean sports and athletics.


Minsoo Kang is an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is the author of the history book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas, and the translator of the Penguin Classic edition of the Joseon dynasty novel The Story of Hong Gildong. His book-length study of The Story of Hong Gildong is forthcoming in 2018 under the title The Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: Hong Gildong, the Noble Robber of Korea, in literature, history, and culture.