Bend it Like a Man of Chosun: Sports Nationalism
and Colonial Modernity of 1936
Jung Hwan Cheon (Sung Kyun Kwan University, Seoul,
Sohn Kee-chung, under the Japanese pronunciation of his name, Son
Ki-tei, surprised the international media gathered in the 1936 Berlin
Olympics by winning the gold medal in the marathon event. It was a
big boon for Korean nationalism that had been formulating since the
1890's through Koreans' participation in sports. If not for the
struggle for independence in exile, Korean nationalism under the
Japanese Empire was merely a thought whose realization seemed forever
postponed. Cultural Nationalism (the Self-Strengthening Movement) was
the practical dominating ideology among the masses in colonial Korea,
which was based on a premise that political or military confrontation
with the Japanese Empire was impossible. Thus, the cultural
nationalists needed indirect and abstract capacity such as 'culture',
'education' or 'sports'. Especially, sports, coming from western
nations, were a symbol of civilization and modernity. That was the
best symbolic method to show their national capacity through
competition with foreigners. Also, under the Japanese Empire, Koreans
were indoctrinated that they were culturally and physically inferior
to the Japanese. Behind the groundless discrimination there was an
unreasonable disdain which was rooted in racism. This racism was
metastasized from the complex that Japanese had for westerners. In
1922, a magazine titled The Creation printed an article with a
provocative title "If You Are a Korean Man, Play Football". The
author argued that Koreans' ethnic and racial inferiority to
westerners could be healed by participating in sports like football.
In this context, the Olympic marathon winner Sohn Kee-chung became the quintessence of sports nationalism. A novelist Shim Hoon was deeply moved and cried out 'will you, everyone around the world, still call us a weak bunch now?' (Chosun Joongang ilbo, August 11, 1936). This victory brought an opportunity to cure the ethnic inferiority and to unify the 'nation', such as when Korea reached the semifinals during the 2002 World Cup.
In August, 1936, the whole of Korea was caught up in the sports craze. Celebration parties, celebration lectures and marches with flags went on and on all over the country. Newspapers made record sales with congratulatory telegrams and ads. Record companies released disks with 'songs commemorating the world conquest'. Theaters rushed to stage plays about Sohn's victory and made box office hits. The long running craze was made and intensified by nationalism and capitalism. The ability to turn patriotic fever into a national mania was owed to commercial media, routinized trends and individuals eager to follow the trends, and a nationalistic herd mentality. In short, Colonial Korea had an aspect of 'nationalistic mass society.' Behind the craze, of course, there were the most rational and insidious reason of the state and hard-edged theory of capital. It was to leave large after-effects and a broad common national memory.
The only trouble with the Olympic event was that there was controversy as to which home he would take his gold. Though the flag of Japan was raised at the Berlin stadium and the Japanese national anthem was played, Sohn, a Korean, was silently drooping his head at the top of the victory stand. Right after the race, he wrote only three letters "s,a,d" on a postcard he sent to a friend in Korea. His behavior also made his victory symbolic.
After Dong-A Ilbo, a newspaper run by Koreans in the colony, published Sohn's photograph with the Japanese flag on his uniform removed, the Japanese governor-general's office revoked the newspaper company's license for nine months. Erasing the Japanese flag occurred 16 days after Sohn won the race, when the fever had cooled down. There was the delicate moment of shuffling of colonial powers including the governor, and the incident changed the political situation of the colony. Moreover, it was one year before the Sino-Japanese war which changed the fate of each country and people in East Asia. The Japanese Empire, needing control and mobilization, reorganized Korean media and made Bourgeois Capitalism subservient.
However, Sohn's victory ended the early stage of Korean sports nationalism. Koreans thoroughly realized the importance of international competition in sports and internalized a deep and peculiar pride in sports power.
This chapter will consider the politics of race, colonialism, fascism, and sports as they came to puncture the mania created by Sohn's victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Cheon Jung Hwan is associate Professor of Department of Korean Language and Literature, Sung Kyun Kwan University. He is one of the leading scholars the author of three books on modern Korean literature, intellectual history, and culture--among which are Modern Reading: the Birth of the Reader and Modern Korean Literature 《근대의 책 읽기: 독자의 탄생과 한국 근대문학》(2003) and If You are a Man of Chosun, play ball! <조선의 사나이거든 풋뽈을 차라> (2010).