Sohn Kee-chung, center, bowed his head in protest after winning the Olympic marathon in 1936.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — She is only 19, and like most teenagers, Kim Yu-na probably has a greater sense of immortality than of history.
At the Vancouver Games in February, she is heavily favored to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating, something no Korean woman has done. A victory would make Kim perhaps the most visible Korean Olympic champion since the bittersweet success of Sohn Kee-chung in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Games.
Those were the Games of Hitler and Jesse Owens and of a Korean peninsula occupied by Japan. In becoming the first Korean to win a gold medal, Sohn set an Olympic record of 2 hours 29 minutes 19.2 seconds. But he was forced to compete for Japan, to adopt the Japanese name Kitei Son and to stand on the medal podium while the Japanese flag was raised and the Japanese anthem was played.
Later, Sohn became a heroic symbol of nationalism and patriotism in South Korea. When it competed for the first time as an independent nation at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Sohn carried the South Korean flag in the opening ceremony. He is buried in the National Cemetery in Daejeon, and his story is taught to children in history classes.
“I know of him,” Kim, the reigning world champion, said of Sohn on Friday after training here at Skate America, a pre-Olympic competition. “I don’t know of all the details. I know he did a very good job in the Olympics even though Korea was occupied. I will try to be like him.”
At this point, Kim may be the most popular athlete in South Korea, journalists said, more popular than even Park Ji-sung, the captain of the national soccer team and a winger for Manchester United.
At home, Kim endorses everything from milk to cellphones to air conditioners. As she spoke Friday, microphones from three Korean television networks were thrust in her face, and a dozen Korean reporters, photographers and cameramen gathered around her. Nine banners featuring Kim hung in the arena most famous for the United States’ hockey victory over the former Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
As elegant and popular as Kim is, though, she is not yet taught in history class.
That distinction is reserved for Sohn, who, despite having set the world marathon record of 2:26:42 in 1935, faced a dilemma heading into the 1936 Berlin Games. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, and Sohn’s chance of competing in the Olympics required him to qualify for the Japanese team.
Once in Berlin, he refused to sign his Japanese name, continuing to sign his Korean name instead. According to various versions of the story, Sohn drew a picture of the Korean peninsula or the Korean flag next to his signature.
He won the Olympic race by two minutes, and his Korean countryman Nam Seung-yong, also forced to compete for Japan, finished third. During the Japanese anthem, both men bowed their heads in what they later said was meant as a protest.
“That was a difficult period for the Koreans,” said Moon Yoon-suk, 33, the vice president of a production company that is making a documentary about Kim for the Seoul Broadcasting System, a major Korean network. “Mr. Sohn gave us hope for independence and showed that we were better than the Japanese.”
After the race, Sohn “was very aware of this idea of foreign occupation, and he tried to talk about it at his press conference,” according to the Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.
“But this was something fairly obscure to a bunch of sportswriters,” Wallechinsky said.
Still, even in his comments about the race, Sohn hinted at the political, saying: “The human body can only do so much. Then the heart and spirit must take over.”
This brought a huge moment of nationalist pride to occupied Korea. One newspaper, Dong-a Ilbo, went so far as to alter a photograph of Sohn on the medal podium, blotting out the Japanese flag on his sweatshirt. According to Wallechinsky’s “Complete Book of the Olympics,” eight people affiliated with the paper were jailed and publication was halted for nine months.
Forty years after carrying the flag for South Korea at the 1948 London Olympics, Sohn had another moment in the spotlight at 74. At the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, which symbolized South Korea’s move from authoritarian rule to democracy, he carried the torch into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.
“He was the symbol of their coming out,” Wallechinsky said of Sohn. “He came through the tunnel with the torch, and everyone knew who he was. They didn’t have to be told. There was this huge roar. He jumped up into the air and seemed to bound around the track.”
There was one final moment of glory for Sohn. He was in attendance in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics when Hwang Young-cho won the marathon for South Korea, so exhausted in his exertion that he collapsed at the finish line. His victory came 56 years to the day after Sohn’s victory. And it carried a particular satisfaction for many Koreans, as Hwang took the gold over a Japanese runner, Koichi Morishita.
Hwang played down the political angle, noting that his racing shoes had been made in Japan. But he later gave his gold medal to Sohn, who said, “Now I can die without any regrets.”
He lived another decade before dying of pneumonia at 88 in 2002.
The link between Kim and Sohn is “national pride, though for different reasons,” Wallechinsky said.
“Figure skating is a premier event,” he said. “I’m sure Koreans would be proud of her, and the fact that it’s a woman would be special. They dominate sports like archery, but archery isn’t ladies’ figure skating. Everyone is going to know the Olympic ladies’ figure-skating champion.”
If Kim Yuna wins a medal in figure skating it will be the first Winter Olympic medal to be won by a Korean outside of speedskating and short track