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A Half Success: The First Olympics for Colonial Korea

Seok Lee, University of Pennsylvania

Even though it is the first, meaningful Olympics in which three Korean athletes participated in Korean sports history, the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics attracted little attention as an object of critical observation. In this paper, I would like to examine 1932 Olympic Games’ multifaceted effect on colonial Korea beyond typical nationalistic historiography focusing on Japanese discrimination vs. Korean resistance.

The Olympics, one of the very western, modern mega-sports events, provided golden opportunities for Koreans to boast the power of Korean nation which had been forgotten in the world’s stage since the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Three Korean athletes, (Kim Ŭnbae, Kwon Taeha, Hwang Ŭlsu) were acclaimed as national heroes who competed in the world stage for the first time in Korean history. When Kim Ŭnbae returned home after finishing the marathon race in sixth place, colonial Korea was flooded with the joy of victory, even under the harsh Japanese colonialism. The unprecedented Olympic fever swept over the entire Korean Peninsula and the joy long-lasted in the hearts of not only those few national leaders, but the wide swath of Korean population.

However, even the Olympics could not hold all Koreans together or make them proud of their fatherland. During the 1932 Olympics, a significant number of Koreans living in Los Angeles were not hesitant to dismiss the Korean athletes, viewing them not only as members of Japanese national team, but also as national betrayers. For some Korean intellectuals who focused their attention on popularization of sports, propagating calisthenics was much more an urgent issue than sending a handful of elite athletes to Olympics, especially given the fact that most Koreans were suffering in poverty and lack of medical facilities. Even the three heroized Korean Olympians were not happy with their first debut because of their disappointing result.

In sum, the wide array of Koreans-athletes, sports fans, national leaders, Korean residents in America- observed, participated, and consumed this mega-sports event one way or the other. If the Olympic Games convoluted social phenomena, the Koreans’ reactions to the 1932 Olympic Games were such.