On August 9th, 1936, Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-Chung won gold at the Berlin Olympics, setting a new Olympic record (2 h, 29 min, 19.2 sec). He was already world record holder since from the previous year (2 h, 26 min, 42 sec).
The name Sohn Kee-Chung, however, is not the name he was registered under during the Olympics. Because Korea was a Japanese colony at the time, despite the fact that Sohn was Korean, his name was registered as it was pronounced in Japanese, Son Kitei.
In the photograph of his medal reception, though both he and bronze medal winner Nam Seung-Ryong (registered as Nan Shoryu) were Korean nationals despite their uniforms displaying the flag of Japan. In the background stands a German official, her arm outstretched in the Nazi salute.
Nam is later reported to have said that he envied Sohn’s first place finish for his ability to hide the Japanese flag with his bouquet, more so than the gold medal itself. Both his and Nam’s heads are bowed and their expressions are somber as they stand on the podium despite the immense achievement of having medaled at the Olympics. The wreath around Sohn’s head casts dark shadows on his face, hiding his eyes. He later went on record as saying that he regretted winning, as it was a win for Japan and not Korea.
When contextualized, the image of Sohn and Nam on the Olympic podium is as powerful as any other in sports journalism history, as poignant to Koreans as Jesse Owens’ gold medal photos in the same ’36 Berlin games.
Owens won gold in four track and field events, and his athletic dominance was a slap in the face of the myth of Aryan racial superiority. Though urban myths circulated that Hitler refused to shake Owens’s hand on the podium, Owens himself stated that he was treated better in Germany than he was in the United States, which was in the throes of Jim Crow segregation.
One of the allures of sports photojournalism is that it can capture a great moment in an athlete’s achievements. Though we see only one brief image, we know that it is the culmination of years and years of training, failures, self-doubt, perseverance, and all the other psychological factors involved in the making of the athlete.
Photos like the ones above point also to the lens of history. This Saturday, August 15th, will mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan. Koreans refer to the event as gwang-bok, the recovery of light. The idea of “recovery,” of returning to and retrieving and reevaluating, is one way to recognize the lost or suppressed histories documented in sports.
SERENITY JOO | @JooSerenity
Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.
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