Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sohn Kee-chung and the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon

I can't say that I've ever run a race and seen Hitler on a big screen the size of my apartment, but there's a first time for everything, I suppose. Today I ran a 10k at the Sohn Kee-chung Marathon, named after the Korean runner who won the 1936 Olympic Marathon. Much as Jesse Owens is celebrated in part for his accomplishments at the Berlin Olympics, Sohn became a national hero after bowing his head at the medal ceremony to protest Japan's colonization of Korea. Sohn competed as a Japanese national under a Japanese name (Sohn Kitei).

The Dong-a Ilbo continued the protest by airbrushing the Japanese flag from Sohn's shirt at the medal ceremony, quite possibly the last independent thought from that venerable journalistic institution. This earned them a nine-month publication ban and caused eight people to be arrested. Sohn himself had a long career in sport as a coach and administrator, so the story does have a happy ending.

I love Sohn's story for a few reasons. The first is the obvious political significance, but Sohn is also a personification of one of my favourite things about running, namely that someone can go from obscurity and an even more obscure place to victory in a matter of minutes, or perhaps hours in this case. Sohn was able to do it coming from a poor, backwards corner of the world while running 2:29, but that it can happen today for people running 2:05 is a lesson in both sport and running.

Second, Sohn's enduring popularity speaks to the immense popularity that the marathon enjoys in Japan and Korea. We know that Japan cares about the marathon more than any country in the world, to the point that 284,000 largely domestic runners applied for 35,500 spots in the Tokyo Marathon. Compare that with about 140,000 applicants for the 47,000 spots in the New York Marathon, and similar numbers for the London Marathon. Korea is able to put together three world-class races in three weekends, with large fields trailing behind.

As for the race and Hitler, today's race started and finished at the Olympic Stadium in Seoul. The 10k ran out of the river and went west along the river, which meant it ran into the wind for 5k and then with it for the second half. After a stinker of a race last week at a race where I normally do very well, I thought I was still tired from the Chuncheon Marathon. While I ran everyday this week, I ran no more than 20 minutes at one time. I was fresher, and the crisp weather (just above zero?) helped.

I had a much better rhythm this time than last time, which is what I use to pace instead of what my watch tells me. My best this year is 40:54 and I was hoping to just beat that instead of getting a sub-40. I was slow at 5k in 20:46, but I had lots of energy and knew I'd get to run with the wind. I ran the next two kilometres relaxed (4:05, 4:05) before pushing hard at 7k (3:55, 4:00, 3:54). The second 5k was exactly 20:00 and the final time was 40:46. That was probably the best I've felt in a race all year. I'll take one last shot at a sub-40 this year in four weeks, but I'm really looking towards the spring now.

As for Hitler, a documentary on Sohn's life was playing on the screen in the stadium as runners finished. When I finished, I looked up and there was a scene of Hitler waving to the crowd at the Berlin Olympics. Much of the footage was quite interesting as the nexus of Korean nationalism, Japanese imperialism and Nazi Germany at the 1936 Olympics is not a topic that's been given a thorough treatment, at least in English.


Rob-o-SE-yo said...

You need to include the completion of Sohn Kee-chung's story: when he was the one who carried the Olympic torch into the stadium during the open ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, bringing his story full circle (and in 1992, when another Korean marathoner, Hwang Young-cho, finally won Men's Marathon Gold under the Korean flag)

Adeel said...

Too late, you already did.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

I see what you did there. :)