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How „Kee Chung-sohn“ won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Marathon as „Kitei Son“ in 1936 in Berlin

The 1936 Olympic Marathon Champion in Berlin died in November 2002

2003-02-19

Since its beginning, the BERLIN-MARATHON has had a special affinity to the Olympic champions in the marathon. From 1974 – 1977, the BERLIN-MARATHON medals were adorned with running figures from the antiquities. Since 1978, the medals have been dedi-cated to Olympic champions. The Olympic heroes and their merits are thus remembered and saved for posterity in the medals. They are indeed the “forerunners” and protagonists of to-day’s modern running movement and development.

This series of medals began with the 1978 BERLIN-MARATHON with the portrait of Kitei Son (JPN), the 1936 champion in Berlin. In addition, the certificate that every participant re-ceives includes a picture of the Olympic champion, and the programme includes the success story of the victor.


Kee Chung-sohn (the Korean name) was invited by the organisers to be an honorary guest at the first city marathon in Berlin in 1981, as was Emil Zatopek at a later date. He wore the red marathon helper’s jacket at the start in front of the Reichstag and was greeted with overwhelming applause. Richard von Weizsäcker, then mayor of Berlin, gave the starting shot.

Kee Chung-sohn was then privately invited for coffee by Race Director Horst Milde and his children, who were given photos and autographs. He repeated his visit a few years later as the official ambassador and representative for his country, Korea, for the candidacy of Seoul for the 1988 Olympic Games.

Kitei Son’s victory in Berlin is described below through various reports about the race. Readers from Berlin should take a close look at the report about the course to be able to judge what the Olympic participants had to accomplish in 1936.

„Zabala was crushed by Son and Harper“
read the headline of the track and field specialist Ekkehard zur Megede in his book, “The History of Olympic Track and Field”, Volume 1:1896 – 1936, Bartels & Wernitz, 1968, and under the headline “From the Stone Age of the Olympic MARATHON” in the programme of the 1983 BERLIN-MARATHON” the same text follows: „56 runners participated on August 9, 1936 at 3:00 p.m. in the battle over 42.195 km, including the Argentinean Juan Carlos Zabala, who had hoped to repeat his 1932 victory in Los Angeles. He had improved his time for 10,000m to 30:56,2 and was fairly sure of himself. But he had not taken the men from Japan into consideration. Kitei Son (2:26:42 in 1935), Tamao Shiaku (2:26:53,0 at the beginning of the Olympic year) and Shorju Nan represented Japan’s flag. Son originated from Korea, and today lives in Seoul as one of South Korea’s richest men, owning almost all of the mills in the country.

From the beginning, Zabala did not worry about his competitors, running alone with over a minute lead ahead of Dias of Portugal at the 10 km mark in 32:30. At that point, Son was in fifth place, 1:58 behind. But at the control point at the 21 km mark, the situation already looked much different. Although the Argentinean, who was looking tired, was still in the lead with 1:11:29,0, the 22-year-old Son and the ten years older Englishman Ernest Harper ran by together in second place, fifty seconds behind. Shortly after 28 km, Son and Harper reached the South American, who then suffered a collapse. Zabala recovered once, chugged along for four more kilometres, and then gave up completely exhausted.

Kitei Son did not let Harper run at his side for long. He felt refreshed and increased the tempo. He turned his 16-second lead ahead of the Brit at the 31 km mark into more than two minutes by the finish. He reached the Olympic stadium in good condition and even had the energy for a final sprint. As the first marathon runner in the history of the Olympics, he beat the two and a half hour mark with a time of 2:29:19,2. Harper also beat Zabala’s Olympic record, which the third place Japanese runner, Nan, just missed by six seconds.

By the way, the Olympic champion Son ran in shoes that were split at the front, which was quite a sensation at the time. When he was visiting Berlin twenty years later, he commented: “That was just a fad. It gave me neither an advantage nor disadvantage.”

1. Kitei Son (Japan) 2:29:19,2 (OR)
2. Ernest Harper (Great Britain) 2:31:23,2
3. Shoryu Nan (Japan) 2:31:42,0“

42 runners crossed the finish. The best German runner was Eduard Braesicke 2:59:33,4 in 29th place. Paul de Bruyn and Franz Barsicke dropped out of the race.

Average speed of 17 kph
“The Olympic Games 1936”, Volume 2, published by the Cigaretten-Bilderdienst Hamburg-Bahrenfeld (1936) commented on the marathon race under the headline „The Classic Race“ and „Japan’s Triumph“ in the introduction:

„A unique and strong aura has always surrounded the victor of the Olympic marathon. He embodies the victory of the spirit over matter, the will forces the body to achieve things that incite amazement. In no other athletic exercise is this degree of tenacity and endurance, of energy and power of the organs so developed and necessary. The more the body’s power is exhausted, the more noticeable the lack of energy becomes. Only one who has years of disciplined training behind him, one who has gathered experience through hard battles, one who has learned to cope with stress and strain to the point of exhaustion, can survive the Olympic battle. Performances are now so advanced, that he who hopes to play a role in the fight for victory must run an average of 17 km per hour over the course of 42.195 km.”

„The History and Drama of Sport’s Most Challenging Event“
Less lyrical is the description by David E. Martin, PhD (Regents’ Professor of Health Sciences Georgia State University) and Roger W. H. Gynn (Marathon Statistician Association of Track & Field Statisticians) in their book „The Olympic Marathon“ – „The History and Drama of Sport’s Most Challenging Event“ (Human Kinetics 2000) under the headline “A Global Battle on a Warm Day Produces an Olympic Record”.

Through the course description in this book, today’s reader can see what the 1936 race was like and what the runners of the 1936 Games race had to accomplish.

The Course of the Olympic Marathon in Berlin
The pretty but very hilly (with a difference of between 32 m and 80 m) landscape of the Havelchaussee, and then the AVUS with its „beautiful straightness“ would be nothing to offer today’s competitive runner, unless one wanted to drive him hard for training.

At Antwerp and Amsterdam the weather had been chilly and occasionally rainy. However, August 9 was sunny and dry with race-time temperatures ranging from 22.3 (72.1 F) at 15:00 (3:00) start to 21 C (69.8 F) at the finish. Kitei Son had the race number 382.

David Martin described the course of the Olympic marathon in Berlin in great detail in his book: „Start in the stadium at sprint start line – 1 ¾ laps counter clockwise in stadium to marathon exit tunnel – upon exit through the tunnel, 2 sharp right turns and then a left turn to climb onto the grassy surface of the Maifeld – run along the Maifeld adjacent to the Olympic stadium until abreast of the stadium opening, then left, continuing on the Maifeld toward the Olympic bell tower – continue on the Glockenturmstrasse to Angerburgallee – right on the Angerbur-gallee to Havelchaussee – left on Havelchaussee and continue until km 13 at the entrance to the AVUS Rennstrecke – left onto AVUS, continuing its entire length, eventually returning just after 30 km – right to exit the AVUS, re-enter Havelchaussee – continue on Havel-chaussee to Angerburgallee – right onto Angerburgallee to Glockenturmstrasse [sic! – past the offices of the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON and SCC-RUNNING!] – left on Glockenturm-strasse to the Olympic bell tower – run through the passageway beneath the bell tower onto the Maifeld – continue on the Maifeld toward the stadium, then right, remain on the grassy field along the stadium to the tunnel across the road, then left, then left again, to re-enter the marathon tunnel – continue through the tunnel onto the stadium track – turn right onto the track and run 150 m along its sprint side ending at the distance event finish line.”

The stadium was jammed, and according to the “New York Times” from August 10, „Fairly conservative estimates of the number of spectators who lined the route set the figures at more than 1,000,000.” 15 checkpoints were established at roughly 3 km intervals. At these points fluids, refreshments, and medical services were provided, and intermediate split times were also recorded.

Favourite for Berlin 1936
Kitei Son (Kee chung-sohn) was born on August 29, 1914 in Sinuiju, a small village on the Yalu in Korea, near the border to China. He won his gold medal at age 22. He had previously run the distances between 800m and 5000m, and when he transferred over to the marathon, he immediately won his first three races, all in Seoul, and all on a course that was too short. The first two races were national championships. In 1935, he ran 7 marathons, 4 in Seoul and 3 in Tokyo. He ran his best time on November 3, 1935 in Tokyo in 2:26:42 and was thus the clear favourite for Berlin. Shoryu Nan (Nam Sung-yong), who was third in the Olympic marathon in Berlin, was also a Korean who ran for Japan, as Japan had annexed Korea in the war. Dave Martin continued in his book with the headline: „From silent protest to highest honour“, that at the award ceremonies both Japanese runners bowed their heads as the Japanese anthem was played while they were on the podium, but „not in reverence to the flag or the anthem, put in polite but silent shame and outrage“ that their nation lived under Japanese domination.

The Japanese flag on his training jacket was erased on the photo of the victor Kitei Son that was published the following day in the Korean daily newspaper Dong-a Ilbo.

Dave Martin continued: „Time has a habit of healing wounds, and for Son, as well as for all Koreans, 1988 brought something very special. One of the most poignant moments in mara-thon history during this first modern Olympic century came at the opening ceremonies of the Seoul Olympic Games. Now 73 years old, Sohn Kee Chung ran into the stadium carrying the Olympic flame, 52 years after becoming Olympic champion, at last he was running on an Olympic track wearing his Korean colors! The 88,000 spectators filling the Olympic stadium were completely surprised and rose to their feet to give prolonged applause. Seemingly taking energy from these emotions, Kee, weeping with immeasurable joy, ran so proudly and vigor-ously that he looked almost as young as in Berlin. Few in attendance will forget it.”


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