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Mythbusters: Sohn’s 1936 Olympic Run

Posted August. 09, 2006 04:30,   


Only on two occasions did Asians win gold medals in the Olympic men’s marathon. The first was Sohn Kee-chung in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the second winner was Hwang Young-cho in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Although there is a gap of 56 years, both marathons are quite similar to each other. The winners were both Koreans, and they were held on the same day, August 9. After starting the marathon at 3:02 p.m., Sohn was wearing the laurel at the podium around 6:00 p.m., at which time Hwang spurted off from Barcelona Stadium. Fifty-six runners from 27 countries ran in the Berlin marathon, while exactly twice the number of runners, or 112 from 73 countries, ran in Barcelona.

It is also similar in that the two Koreans and one foreign runner contended in the last part of the race. In Barcelona, Hwang, Korean Kim Wan-ki, and Japanese Morishita led the pack 29 km into the race. In Berlin, since the 35 km point, Sohn ran with Nam Seung-ryong and British runner Harper.

The medal award ceremonies were also symbolic. In 1936, instead of the Korean flag, two Japanese flags for first and third place were raised, but in 1992, the Korean flag was on the top with the Japanese and German flags below. Japan, which had put Korea under tremendous pain in 1936, as well as Germany ruled back then by Hitler, were under the Korean flag. However, there are some incorrect and exaggerated facts.

Sohn Did not Run in Scorching Weather—

The weather in Berlin on August 9, 1936 between 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., was around 21 to 22.3 degrees Celsius, with humidity level at 20 percent, which is a clear and dry day. Although it is not the perfect weather for a marathon, where temperatures should be around 10 degrees Celsius with 30 percent humidity, it wasn’t either a scorching hot day with temperature above 30 degrees Celsius as some claim. In particular, the first and latter section of the marathon ran through 100,000 pyeong of Grün Wald, or green forest, which was literally a path through the forests. Even now, that section is covered by huge trees that even shut out sunlight. The middle part of the marathon course, from the 13th km to the 30th km, covers a straight highway, so it might have been a bit hotter when running that portion. In contrast, the temperature was 28 degrees Celsius with humidity level reaching 80 percent, a virtual sauna, when the runners ran in Barcelona.

Berlin Marathon Course was Almost Flat—

The so-called Wilhelm Kaiser Hill, claimed to be located at the 35 km spot, and Bismarck Hill, at the 40 km, did not actually exist. Those locations were only slightly elevated at about two meters. Hwang, 36, and who is the coach of the Seoul Olympic Sports Promotion Foundation marathon team, visited the course and said, “The S-shaped incline below the bridge at the 40 km spot can be easily climbed with the momentum gained while running. In particular, Sohn had a two minute advantage over second-place Harper at that point, so it wouldn’t have been a big problem for him.” In Barcelona, Hwang beat Morishita at Montjuic Hill, a 50 meter hill, located 40 km from the starting line.

Sohn’s Winning Record was not a World Record—

Sohn’s winning record was two hours 29 minutes and 19 seconds. It converts into running 100 meters in an average time of 21.23 seconds. It was the best Olympic record until then and the first time the two hours and 30 minute barrier had been shattered at the Olympics. However, the incumbent world record at the time was two hours 26 minutes and 42 seconds, set by the same Sohn in November 1935 at the Tokyo Meiji Jingu Tournament. This record is broken 12 years later, in April 1947 by Suh Yoon-bok, an apprentice of Sohn, at the Boston Marathon, where he finished in two hours 25 minutes and 39 seconds.