Koreans and the Boston Marathon

Originally started in 1897 as a local running event in Boston, the Boston Marathon has been held annually on Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts state holiday commemorating the start of the American Revolution. This event, one of the oldest and best known marathons in the world, has a deep historical connection to Koreans and Korean national aspirations. Korean participation in the Boston Marathon in the mid-twentieth century provided opportunities for the small Korean diaspora community to celebrate its culture and heritage, and Korean marathon victories revealed some of the racial and cultural assumptions about Koreans held by many Americans of the time.

Yun Bok Suh won the 1947 Boston Marathon with a world record time of 2:25:39. His win was doubly meaningful since he was the first Korean to win an international sporting event following Korea’s independence from Japanese colonialism (1910-1945). In fact, the coach of the Korean marathon team, Kee Chung Sohn, was the winner of the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He and his Korean teammate, Nam Sung Yong, who took the bronze medal, refused to smile and looked downward when the national flag of Japan was raised at the medal ceremony as a sign of protest against Japanese rule. When Dong-a Ilbo, a Korean daily, published a photograph of Sohn at the medal ceremony removing the Japanese flag from his running tunic, eight people connected with the newspaper were imprisoned, and the newspaper suspended its publication for nine months. With the memory of this history, Suh’s win in 1947 Boston Marathon with Sohn’s coaching was a source of tremendous pride and joy to the Korean people.

Excerpt of Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Olympics Olympia featuring Sohn’s marthon victory.

Three years later, on April 19, 1950, three Korean marathoners, Kee Yong Ham, Gil Yoon Song, and Yun Chil Choi, astounded the world by winning first, second, and third place in the Boston Marathon.[1] This “Korean Grand Slam” was given prominent coverage in Boston newspapers.[2] In that coverage, Korean food, culture, and political history were described for Bostonians in commentary layered with racial and ethnic stereotypes. For example, Koreans were described as “the Irish of the East” for their “gayety and quick intelligence,” and their marathon victories were attributed in part to “wiry…fine physiques” believed to be common to all Koreans.[3]

For the small Korean diaspora community in the Boston area, marathons offered opportunities to host the visiting athletes and to demonstrate Korean national pride. According to the memory of Dr. Koh, the Korean diaspora community in the Boston area hosted Korean runners by preparing traditional Korean food such as kimchi and gochujang, and Koreans in the area cheered the Korean runners on whenever the Boston Marathon was held in the 1950s.[4]

Dr. Koh shares some ways Koreans in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s supported Korean runners racing in the Boston Marathon.

The delight of the 1950 Korean sweep was very brief, however, since the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. The following year with Americans fighting in the Korean peninsula, allegations surfaced that Ham, Song and Choi had been granted temporary deferments from military service in the South Korean army in order to train for the marathon. It is not clear whether those allegations were true or not, but Walter A. Brown, President of the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.), denied the South Koreans entry into the 1951 marathon. In a statement to Time magazine he said, “While Americans soldiers are fighting and dying in Korea, every Korean should be fighting to protect his country instead of training for marathons. As long as the war continues there, we positively will not accept Korean entries for our race on April 19.”[5]

This obstacle was removed the following year, but it was another fifty years before a Korean won the Boston Marathon. In 2001, Lee Bongju won the men’s race with a record time of 2:32:39. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Sohn was honored for his 1936 victory by being selected to carry the Olympic torch into the stadium at the opening ceremony. Celebration of the Korean sweep of 1950 was finally celebrated in 2004 in Ham’s hometown, with Ham in attendance.[6]

Citations

[1] Jerry Nason, “Koreans Finish 1-2-3 in Marathon Sweep” Daily Boston Globe, Apr 20, 1950.

[2] Sohn, the 1936 Olympic champion, was also there as a coach. In a interview with the Daily Boston Globe right after the race, he said, “We have six or seven men just as good as these three in Korea… it would have been nice to bring them all, but our country is poor.” This interview was conducted through the translation of Homer Kim, Boston merchant, one of the early Korean immigrants in Boston. Tom Fitzgerald, “Lack of Funds Kept Korea BAA Entries to 3” Daily Boston Globe, April 21, 1950.

[3] Henry Wilson, “Koreans the Irish of the East” Daily Boston Globe, April 23, 1950.

[4] Dr. Hesung Koh, interview by authors, New Haven, CT, October 26, 2012.

[5] Bob Dawson, “The Bostson Marathon: Racing Mecca of the World,” SONHAR (Society of North American Historians and Researchers) World Sports History, http://sonahrsports.com/the-boston-marathon-racing-mecca-of-the-world-p133-125.htm (accessed March 26, 2013).

[6] Kim Tae Hwan, “Interview with Ham,” Monthly Choson, July 2012, http://monthly.chosun.com/client/news/viw.asp?nNewsNumb=201207100067 (accessed March 26, 2013).

Written by: Hye Jin Lee

Edited by: Doug Tzan