What do Koreans envy about Japan

The saddest winning picture

At the 1936 Games, the Korean Olympic champion Kee Chung Son had to start in the marathon for Japan. With a German oak in a flower pot, Son tried to cover up the red Japanese sun on his jersey.

Today, Wednesday, August 29, it will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man whose life exemplifies how symbolic sport can be at times. In 1936 he won the gold medal in the marathon in Berlin under Hitler's eyes. Leni Riefenstahl immortalized the sovereign success after a tough fight in the film "Olympia". Behind the name of the winner, however, which is engraved on the plaque of honor at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, hides a life story that only a colonial era can produce. It says: “Kitei Son, Japan”, the Japanese version of the Korean name Kee Chung Son.

Under the sign of two names

The Japaneseization of names was part of colonial policy. Until his death in 2002, the marathon winner's life was therefore characterized by two names. The controversy over names and nationality continues even today. Japan insists that Son's marathon victory was won on behalf of Japan. It seems that the country is reluctant to do without the only Olympic gold in the marathon. The games in Berlin were also memorable for Korea, as two Koreans won Olympic medals for the first time. Behind Son, Sung Yong Nam took bronze in the marathon. His name Shoryu Nan, disfigured beyond recognition, also symbolizes his uncertain colonial identity.

When Son was born in a small village on the border river with China in 1912, Korea had been a colony of Japan for two years. He discovered his joy in running early on and made rapid progress. The sport remained an important field of activity for the Koreans because it aroused less suspicion of ideology. Despite endless harassment, the two marathon runners won the last qualifying run in Tokyo in May 1936. The Japanese Athletics Federation wanted to nominate two Japanese runners for this prestigious discipline, as only three runners were allowed to compete. Finally two Japanese, Suzuki and Shiaku, and two Koreans were sent to Berlin. Another run on site should bring the final decision. Suzuki ultimately missed qualifying. How difficult the environment was for the two Koreans is shown by an episode with the Japanese ambassador, who angrily asked when the runners arrived at Friedrichstrasse station: "Why are there two Chosenjin?" The word "Chosenjin" was used by the Japanese when speaking condescendingly of the Koreans.

The Olympic marathon took place on August 9th, 1936. The favorite was the Argentine Zabala, who won the gold medal at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. He immediately took the lead at the beginning, but broke in after 32 kilometers and was even eliminated. Son, on the other hand, who started at a moderate pace, was able to improve steadily and fought his way to the front. Only pursued by the Englishman Harper, who finished second, Son ultimately won the race with aplomb. His compatriot Nam, who was considered a late starter, started a brilliant race to catch up and reached the goal just behind Harper. Shiaku, on the other hand, had to give up the race at about half the distance.

A sports journalist has described the picture of the two Koreans on the podium as the saddest winning photo in Olympic history. Kee Chung Son and Sung Yong Nam looked down sadly as the Japanese flag was hoisted and the Japanese anthem rang out. With the German oak in the flower pot, which he received as the winner, Son tried to cover up the red Japanese sun on his jersey. Nam will later say that he envied Son not for his gold medal, but for the flower pot. In Berlin, Son tried in vain to draw attention to the fate of his country. He handed out autographs with his Korean name on and said he was Korean everywhere.

The jubilation over the victory was great both in Korea and in Japan. The Japanese journalists present sent enthusiastic reports to Japan. The Koreans were happy because one of them had won. One poet wrote: "In our ears, which have never heard the word 'Victory', the sound of the bell rang through the darkness of the night to announce victory." Because after long colonial oppression and hopelessness, they finally heard of victories in distant Europe.

No festivities

Soon the first photos appeared in the few remaining Korean newspapers. But the editors had retouched the hated red Japanese sun on the breasts of their heroes. This led to momentous scandals. When the colonial administration noticed this, all journalists involved were arrested and the newspapers were banned indefinitely. Japan feared the Korean independence movement would flare up again. All festivities in honor of the winners were banned in Korea. On the way back, Son was under constant Japanese guardianship and he had to promise never to run a marathon again. The symbol of victory should remain invisible. Son only regained his freedom with the liberation of Korea in 1945.