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The 1936 Olympic marathon gold and the mysterious North Korean athletics legacy

The 1936 Olympic marathon gold and the mysterious North Korean athletics legacy


The emergence of North Korea’s leader on to the international political stage has enormous connotations, and it is really a very minor issue – but interesting, nonetheless – to hope for some clarification of the country’s national records in athletics. According to the Wikipedia website, the women’s records for the five shortest track distances read in sequence 11.80, 25.10, 56.23, 1:58.0, 4:14.76, and there’s an obvious anomaly here. The long-lasting 1:58.0 for 800 metres belongs to Sin Kim Dan, who would have been an immensely tough rival for Ann Packer in the 1964 Olympic 800 metres had she been allowed to run. Furthermore, Sin Kim Dan also did 51.2 for 400 metres four days after Betty Cuthbert had beaten Packer for that year’s Olympic title in 52.0. And yet this equally credible latter performance of Sin Kim Dan’s does not appear in the Wikipedia listing.


This is very odd. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry did a lot of homework – there are 59 footnote references to IAAF Statistics Handbooks, and the claim is made that the list is based on what has been officially ratified by the athletics authorities of North Korea (more properly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). I tried to access the DPRK website, but this was unobtainable, and I therefore sought help from the IAAF, but so far they haven’t got round to replying to me. At a time when gender issues are overshadowing athletics, reference to Sin Kim Dan may seem timely, but any suggestions that her sex status was dubious are based entirely on supposition. Sin Kim Dan disappeared after a few years, and no one – at least no one outside North Korea – has apparently the least idea as to what has happened to her since. 


North Korea was formed under Communist control in 1945 after the end of World War II and doesn’t seem to have ever taken athletics very seriously, apart from the marathon. Sin Kim Dan is by far the most successful woman track athlete, and in more recent years the only other woman performer of elite international class has been Ham Bong Sil, who was 5th in the 2003 World Championships marathon in 2:25:31, and then was appointed national coach for the event. It has to be said that there’s been no obvious improvement in the 15 years since, as the only World-ranked marathon runner from the DPRK in 2017 was Kim Hye Gong, 106th in the women’s list at 2:28:35. The men’s national record has stood at 2:09:26 since 1983.


Yet one of the most renowned of all marathon runners, Sohn Kee Chung, was born in 1912 in what was to become North Korea, and a 2017 German-made TV documentary entitled “The Run”, has some interesting observations to make about his life. As is well enough known, he was required to run under the flag of imperialist Japan and the name of Kitei Son when he won the 1936 Olympic marathon, and we now learn that on his return to Seoul after the Games he was ostracised by the country’s Japanese rulers for his pro-Korean stance and was never allowed to race again, even though there was at least one marathon in Seoul in 1937, or make any other public appearances. Sohn Kee Chung spent the greater part of his life in Seoul, and after World War II he became the coach to the leading South Korean marathon runners.


Soldiers in the US Army which then occupied South Korea raised the money for Sohn Kee Chung and two of his runners to go to Boston for the 1947 edition of the classic annual marathon which had been contested since 1897 and so was celebrating its 50th anniversary. According to Tom Derderian’s excellent history of the race, one of the Koreans, Yun Bok Suh, was predicted as the winner by Johnny Kelley, who had himself won at Boston in 1935 and 1945, but it’s not clear why Kelley should have suggested this, unless he was deftly diverting attention away from himself. Yun Bok Suh had run a marathon in 2:39.40 the previous year, though neither the date nor venue was specified, and among the other entries for the 1947 race with much faster times were Mikko Hietanen, the latest of the “Flying Finns” who had won both the European title and the prestigious Kosice event in Czechoslovakia in 1946, and Stylianos Kyriakides, of Greece, who had won at Boston that same year, exactly two minutes ahead of Kelley. However, Kelley must have known something because Yun Bok Suh ran away from Hietanen in the closing stages at Boston and won by four minutes in a World record 2:25:39. Kyriakides was 10th and Kelley 13th.


Tom Derderian observes that the Korean domination “extracted both respect and criticism from American marathoners”. John (“Jock”) Semple, the Scottish-born co-director of the race, responded drily about the visitors, “They’re good, but how many of us could take off for Korea to train and race? Most of us have to beg for a day off from our jobs to rest on the day before a race”. Semple, who had emigrated from Glasgow to the USA in 1921 at the age of 18, was speaking from personal experience. He had finished 7th in the race in 1930, having hitch-hiked for 26 hours the 300-plus miles from Philadelphia to Boston, then hitch-hiked back again, and was fired from his job as a cabinet-maker two days later. He continued competing at Boston for another 20 years, still placing 22nd in 1950.


A Japanese, Shigeki Tanaka, won at Boston in 1951, and Johnny Kelley made a heartfelt comment beforehand when asked about the prospects of Tanaka and his three team-mates: “They could do it sight unseen because that’s their whole life – the whole life, at least, for this particular four. They never ride because there’s little to ride in Japan. So they’re always walking and running. As for this particular race and objective, they’re privileged to make a career of it. They train a whole year. They come here and train for three weeks. We working men, running only on weekends and in our spare time, must compete against that. It’s unfortunate that the Korean ‘sweep’ of last year should have been presented before the whole world the way it was. People in other countries don’t understand the full story. They conclude Americans are soft. That’s not true”. 


Yun Bok Suh’s victory accordingly established him as one of the favourites for Olympic gold at Wembley the next year, but the race turned out to be a disaster for all three South Koreans (no North Korea in the summer Olympics until 1972). Yun Bok Suh was 27th of the 31 finishers. Yoon Chil Choi was leading at 35 kilometres and then unaccountably started limping and dropped out. Even the definitive Olympic marathon experts, David Martin and Roger Gynn, could find no explanation for Yoon Chil Choi’s sudden demise, but the simple reason may be that he had gone too fast too soon, making up two minutes on the leaders. The third Korean, Hong Chong Oh, was 25th.


Yet when the Koreans returned to Boston in 1950, again in the care of Sohn Kee Chung, they finished 1-2-3, as Kee Young Ham, aged only 19, won in 2:32:29 from Ki Yoon Song, with Yoon Chil Choi 3rd. There was no explanation for the slow times because the conditions were ideal, though the relevant factor might have been an excessive pace in the early stages of the race as the Koreans fought for the lead with an American, Jesse Van Zant. Tom Derderian states that the winner “stopped to walk five times in the last five miles … but he had such a big lead that nobody could catch him”. Maybe the other two Koreans weren’t bothered to do so, and their indifference almost backfired on them. The leading American, John Lafferty, who barely broke 2 hours 40, passed Yoon Chil Choi unnoticed on the other side of the road near the finish and only a desperate sprint by the Korean, alerted to the situation by Sohn Kee Chung, saved 3rd place. In place of Van Zant, who had long since dropped out, Lafferty (surely of Irish heritage?) was an unlikely local hero – a US Navy meteorologist and the father of three young daughters, he had taken up running at the age of 33 as a distraction from the tedium of his job.


Yoon Chil Choi was the only one of the youthful Korean trio who went on to the Olympic marathon in Helsinki two years later and finished a brilliant 4th, a mere half-a-minute away from a medal. The race took place eight days after his 24th birthday in an era in which most marathon-men were still grizzled veterans into their 30s.Tom Derderian chose the headline, “No More Plodders”, for the section of his Boston Marathon book dealing with the years 1950 to 1959, and that description equally applied worldwide. Even so, South Korea’s marathon history reads rather oddly in the last 60 or so years because there have been two outstanding runners – Hwang Young Cho, Olympic champion in 1992, and Lee Bong Ju, silver-medallist in 1996 – but not a great deal else.


Sohn Chung Kee lived to the age of 90, dying on 15 November 2002. He ran 13 marathons between 1933 and 1936, winning 10 of them, finishing 2nd twice and 3rd once, and all but his Berlin Olympic triumph took place in either Seoul (seven) or Tokyo (five). The 2017 documentary about him includes some most informative interviews with his son, his grandson (who is the director of the Sohn Kee Chung Memorial Foundation) and his biographer. In 2016 a bronze statue of Sohn Kee Chung was erected near to the 1936 Berlin Olympic marathon course. It was not quite a true representation, but deliberately so – the flag on the statue’s chest is that of South Korea, not the Rising Sun emblem that Sohn Kee Chung was required to reluctantly bear as he was awarded his gold medal.

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