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Culver City Runs Into Old Dispute in Honoring Marathon Medalist

August 07, 1986|JEFF BURBANK | Times Staff Writer

In Culver City, officials are equally proud of their annual Western Hemisphere Marathon and their sister-city relationships with towns in South Korea and Japan.

Four years ago, they erected a bronze plaque to honor the winners of the Western Hemisphere Marathon. They also decided to list the winners of all the Olympic Games marathons since 1896 and ended up in the middle of a decades-old dispute between Korea and the International Olympic Committee.

Under Japanese Control

The Culver City plaque shows Kitei Son of Japan as the 1936 Olympic champion. Son, a Korean, won his gold medal while Korea was under Japanese control. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and Korean athletes were forced to compete as Japanese until Korea became independent after World War II.

The Korean government has been trying since 1947 to get the Olympic committee to change its record books to reflect his nationality and the Korean spelling of his name. Although Olympic officials agreed to change Son's name, they have said it is against committee policy to change the nationality of a medal winner.

Korean community leaders met with more success in Culver City, where the City Council agreed last June to change the plaque to reflect Son's real name, Kee-Chung Sohn, and his native country, Korea.

"This might seem a trivial matter, but I assure you it is one that Koreans and Korean-Americans take seriously," Chan Yong Lee, the South Korean consul general in Los Angeles, wrote in a June 4 letter to Mayor Paul A. Netzel.

"Mr. Sohn ran as a member of the Japanese team, but as a colonial subject. His victory in the marathon created a tremendous outpouring in Korea at the time, an outpouring of nationalistic emotion repressed ultimately by the Japanese. . . . It is now time to correct this case of mistaken identity."

Sohn, 74, will arrive this week in Culver City from South Korea to attend a ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of his marathon victory at the close of the 1936 Berlin Games.

But the council stopped short of allowing the Los Angeles-based Korean Federation to put on a larger celebration that would have included blocking off Overland Avenue and inviting up to 3,000 people.

Council members said they were afraid the celebration would embarrass the Japanese. The city maintains sister-city relationships with Kaizuka, Japan, and Iri, South Korea.

"The war has been over for a long, long time," said Councilman Richard M. Alexander, who plans to attend the ceremony. "Digging up memories of what one nation did to another doesn't do much good. And of course, we're caught in the middle because we have forged links to both countries."

Netzel also said he would attend, but Councilmen Paul A. Jacobs, who opposed the large ceremony, said he would be out of town Saturday, and Richard Brundo said he would not attend.

"I believe we made the correction and that should be sufficient," Brundo said. "I think the rest is strictly for notoriety and I don't want to attract publicity. A celebration is one thing; a political event is another, and the council would not like to see that happen."

Woo-chul Lee, vice president of the Korean Federation, said the celebration would have no political overtones.

"There is no political thing whatsoever. It is what we feel is a human right," Lee said.

Lee said the change will be welcomed in South Korea, site of the 1988 Games, where Sohn is a national hero.

"Sohn is the only Asian, the only Oriental to win the marathon. That is why we are so proud of it."

Korean officials are also planning an Aug. 17 ceremony in West Berlin where a plaque that lists Sohn under the name and country assigned him by Japan will be changed.

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