Sohn Kee-chung (Hangul/Hanja/Romanization: 손기정/孫基禎/Son Gijeong; Born: August 29th 1914 – Died: November 15th 2002) is the first medal-winning Korean Olympian, when he won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a member of the Japanese delegation. He is the member of Miryang Son Clan (밀양 손씨/密陽孫氏), a clan which is originated from Miryang City, Southern Gyeongsang Province - Home of Miryang Arirang. Sohn was born in Sinuiju, Northern Pyeongan Province, at the present-day DPRK. He studied at Yangjeong High School (양정고등학교) in Seoul and Meiji University in Tokyo, where he graduated in 1940.
He competed under the Japanese name Son Kitei, as Korea was part of the Japanese Empire at the time. The name is based on the Japanese kanji pronunciation of his Korean hanja name, both are written the same. Son first competed in the 1,500 and 5,000 m, but turned to longer distances after winning an 8-mile race in October 1933. Between 1933 and 1936, he ran 12 marathons; he finished within the first three places on all occasions and won nine of those races. On November 3rd 1935 in Tokyo, Japan, Sohn Kee-chung set a world record in the marathon with a time of 2h26:42. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, this record remained unbroken until Sohn's own trainee, Suh Yun-bok, won the 1947 Boston marathon.
Sohn, who was competing for the Empire of Japan, won the gold medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in the marathon. He ran the 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi) course in 2h29:19.2, breaking the Olympic record. His Korean teammate Nam Sung-yong took the bronze medal. As Korea was part of Japan at the time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japan are officially credited with Sohn's gold and Nam's bronze in the 1936 Summer Olympics medal count.
Sohn refused to acknowledge the Japanese anthem while its was played at his award ceremony and later told reporters that he was ashamed to run for Japan. When the Dong-a Ilbo, published a photograph of Sohn at the medal ceremony it altered the image to remove the Japanese flag from his running tunic. The act enraged the Japanese Governor-General of Korea Minami Jiro in Seoul. The Kempetai military police imprisoned eight people connected with the newspaper and suspended its publication for nine months.
On December 9th 2011, the IOC recognized Sohn's Korean nationality by fixing his official profile. It cited his efforts to sign his Korean name and stressing Korea's status as a separate nation during interviews. The move was part of the Korean Olympic Committee's repeated requests to acknowledge Sohn's background. However, the IOC ruled out changing the nationality and registered name per official records to prevent historical distortions.
For winning the marathon, Sohn was to have received an ancient Corinthian helmet (circa BCE 800–700), which was discovered at Olympia, Greece, and later purchased by a newspaper in Athens for giving it as an Olympic award. However, the IOC believed that presenting such a valuable gift would violate its amateur rules. Thus the helmet was placed in a Berlin museum where it remained for fifty years. It was finally presented to Sohn in 1986. On March 7th 1987, the helmet was categorised as the 904th treasure of South Korea. There was initial plan that awarding replicas of this helmet to the winners of the 2006 Sohn Kee-chung marathon, but winners got only chance to wear that replica.
Sohn spent the remainder of his career in South Korea coaching other notable runners such as Suh Yun-bok, the winner of the Boston Marathon in 1947; Ham Kee-yong, winner of the Boston Marathon in 1950; and Hwang Young-cho, who was the gold medalist of the 1992 Summer Olympics marathon, and whom Sohn Kee-chung especially went to Barcelona to see. Sohn also became the Chairman of the Korean Sporting Association. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, he was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium at the opening ceremony. He authored an autobiography entitled My Motherland and Marathon (나의조국과 마라톤/Na-ui Jogukgwa Marathon). In 1970, he was honoured with the Korean Order of Civil Merit Moran Medal (국민훈장 모란장/國民勳章 牡丹章/Gungmin Hunjang Moran-jang - 2nd Class).
Sohn Kee-chung died at midnight on November 15, 2002 from pneumonia. He was buried at the Daejeon National Cemetery. The Sohn Kee-chung Memorial Park at 101 Sohn Kee-chung Avenue, Malli-dong 2-ga 6-1 beonji, Seoul Jung-gu was established in his honor. He was also posthumously made a Grand Cordon (Blue Dragon) of the Order of Sport Merit (체육훈장 청룡장/體育勳章 靑龍章/Cheyuk Hunjang Cheongnyong-jang - 1st Class).
The historical Korean drama Bridal Mask referenced Sohn Kee-chung's Olympic win and the subsequent arrest of Korean journalists in its twenty-first episode. In a parade scene, a Korean boxer, the first Korean to win an international sports title, was officially recognized as Japanese due to colonization and was wearing a Japanese flag on his shirt. He passed by Korean spectators waving the Japanese flag. Suddenly a group of spectators unveiled their Korean flags, which were given to them the night before, waved them at him, and cheered for him. The boxer then removed the Japanese flag from his shirt and cheered with the crowd. After government officials heard about this incident, the boxer and journalists were arrested, and the newspaper was shut down.