Marathon race in 1948 Olympic Games
Next month will see the opening of the Olympic Games in London. This will be the third time for the U.K. capital to host the games.
The last time, in 1948, my mother took me to see King George VI on his way to Wembley’s Empire Stadium for the opening ceremony, an event depicted recently in The King’s Speech.
Those Olympics, hastily arranged in the aftermath of war, also figured last year in Kang Je-gyu’s World War II epic, ``My Way,” which opened and closed with scenes of the games’ marathon. Actually, the scenes were quite fictional, with the medieval city streets of Riga acting as an incongruous stand-in for the suburbs of postwar north London, and the stadium boasting an anachronistic electronic scoreboard.
And yet there was a tiny basis of truth there. The race did take place, and there was Korean participation. Nowadays, marathons usually start in early morning, but this one set off at 3 p.m. on a hot, cloudy, humid August 7.
Korea, newly liberated, was represented by three athletes, one of whom, Suh Yun-bok, had been coached by the champion from Berlin 1936, Sohn Kee-chung, and had a year earlier set a world record in the Boston Marathon. Another, Choi Yun-chil, led the runners out of the stadium, and he briefly passed the race leader, Belgium’s Étienne Gailly, at 35 km to lead the field before dropping out.
Although he didn’t win, Gailly was the popular hero of the day. He set the pace for almost the whole distance, only to enter the packed stadium in a state of near collapse. He was overtaken on the track, first by the eventual winner, Argentina’s Delfo Cabrera, and then by Britain’s Tom Richards. He finished in such distress that he was unable to attend the medal ceremony
Gailly’s back story had been almost as eventful as that of the heroes of My Way. In 1943, he escaped his Nazi-occupied country, travelled through France, endured six months of imprisonment in Spain, and finally made his way to England where he trained as a paratrooper and joined a runners’ club in London.
Of the Koreans, Choi had the most successful career. He finished third in Boston in 1950, part of a spectacular Korean sweep behind the winner Ham Kee-yong. However, when it was reported the following year that the Koreans were training near Busan with a view to repeat, The Boston American newspaper published a furious editorial headlined, “WHO IS TRAINING FOR WHAT?” alongside pictures of U.S. soldiers trudging through the snows of Korea.
The president of the Boston Athletic Association declared: ``While American 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 will not accept Korean entries for our race.” As some compensation, Choi finished fourth in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics behind the great Emil Zátopek.
Much less fortunate was the gallant Étienne Gailly. Despite his disappointment in London, he was still young for a marathoner, and was among the favorites for the gold medal in Helsinki.
Following London, he returned to his paratroop regiment in Belgium and was dispatched to Korea, where in November 1951, his left foot was shattered by a mine. He never competed again. His brother Pierre was killed in action in Korea, and Étienne himself died in a road accident in 1971, aged 48.
In 1981, almost 10 years to the day later, the victor of 1948, Cabrera, died in a car accident near Buenos Aires, aged 62.
The writer works at Korea National University of Transportation in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province. His email address is email@example.com.