Bronze helmet donated by Olympic gold medalist Son Gijeong

Essay by Gu Moon-gyoung

Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

This bronze helmet is estimated to have been produced in Corinth around the 6th century B.C.E., likely as an offering to the Olympian deities or to give thanks or pray for a victory at the Olympiad. It was discovered at the site of the Temple of Zeus during excavations conducted from 1875 to 1882, led by German archaeologist and professor Ernst Curtius. The helmet was then awarded to Korean runner Son Gijeong for winning the gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Due to circumstances beyond his control, however, Son had to wait about fifty years to receive the helmet.

Portrait Bust of Pericles with the Corinthian Helmet, Roman copy after bronze original (c. 430 B.C.E.), marble (Altes Museum, Berlin; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Portrait Bust of Pericles with the Corinthian Helmet, Roman copy after bronze original (c. 430 B.C.E.), marble (Altes Museum, Berlin; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Distinctive Corinthian helmet in pristine condition

This is a superb example of a Corinthian helmet, the earliest known type of Greek helmet. Corinthian helmets have a distinctive form that was designed to cover the entire head, neck, and face, with openings for the eyes and mouth. The first Corinthian helmets had straight sides from the head to the neck, but the sides then became flared (as seen here) for better protection and comfort. Still, such helmets had several disadvantages: they were very heavy on the head; they had poor ventilation, making them especially uncomfortable in summer; and they completely covered the ears, making it difficult to hear.

Corinthian helmets can be seen on various sculptures of soldiers in ancient Greek temples or monuments. But this is a rare and precious example of an actual Corinthian helmet that is preserved in excellent condition, aside from a slight dent in the front. There are a few holes around the rim, some of which have pins attached. These pins were used to affix a layer of fabric under the helmet for comfort and shock absorption. In addition to the pins, the front of the helmet is decorated with a row of dots.

Interior of helmet with commemorative plaque stating, "From the Athens daily newspaper 'Vradini,' to the winner of marathon in the XI Olympiad in Berlin 1936." Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

Interior of helmet with commemorative plaque stating, “From the Athens daily newspaper ‘Vradini,’ to the winner of marathon in the XI Olympiad in Berlin 1936.” Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

Awarded to Son Gijeong for winning the Olympic marathon in 1936

After winning the marathon at the eleventh Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, Son Gijeong was supposed to receive this helmet as a prize, in addition to his gold medal. However, it was not delivered to him at the time, and was instead given to the Charlottenburg Museum in Berlin, where it would remain for almost five decades. The practice of giving Greek cultural artifacts to the winner of the marathon had begun at the second Olympic Games, held in Paris in 1900. This tradition was intended to commemorate the progenitor of the marathon, a Greek soldier named Pheidippides, who is said to have run about 40 km from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E. Previous winners had received such cultural heritage items, including a bust of Hermes. The practice continued even during the Second World War, when it was illegal to take any Greek cultural heritage items out of the country. For the Berlin Olympics in 1936, this helmet was donated to the winner of the marathon by the Greek newspaper Vradyni. However, the International Olympic Committee decided not to give the helmet to Son Gijeong due to the regulation stipulating that amateur athletes were not eligible to receive major prizes (other than Olympic medals). Thus, Son Gijeong returned home without ever knowing that he was supposed to receive the helmet. Notably, at that time, Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, and Japan had no intentions to speak up on behalf of an athlete from Korea, their colony. Indeed, Japan did not inform Son Gijeong or lodge any protest with the International Olympic Committee, and the helmet was effectively buried back in the annals of history.

Views of Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

Views of Bronze helmet, 6th century B.C.E. (Corinth, Greece), 23 cm high, Treasure 904 (National Museum of Korea, Seoul)

Returned after fifty years

In 1975, Son Gijeong was looking at a photo album when he noticed a photo that he had received from a Japanese staff member shortly after the Olympics. It was only from this photo—taken almost forty years earlier—that Son became aware that he was supposed to have received the helmet after winning the marathon. Thus, he searched for the helmet and discovered that it was currently exhibited at the Charlottenburg Museum in Berlin. The description panel for the helmet read (in German): “Corinthian Helmet from Greece, donated by Vradyni newspaper in Athens, to be awarded to the marathon winner at the eleventh Olympic Games in Berlin, 1936: Sonkitei (ソンキテイ) of Japan; 2 hours, 29 minutes, 19 seconds.” Thus, Son began pursuing his rightful claim to the helmet.

The campaign to have the helmet sent to Son was led not only by the Korean media and the Korean Olympic Committee, but also by Vradyni newspaper and the Greek Olympic Committee. However, the German Olympic Committee adamantly refused to surrender the helmet, offering instead to send a replica, a proposal that Son refused. Finally, after more than ten years, the German Olympic Committee officially granted the helmet to Son at an event in 1986 to commemorate the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and it was sent to him shortly thereafter.

Thus, after fifty years, this helmet was given to its rightful owner. Although it is not Korean cultural heritage, the helmet is an invaluable artifact that was produced about 2,600 years ago. Moreover, it has tremendous historical value to the Korean people as a symbol of Son’s inspiring victory in the marathon during the bleak period of Japanese colonial rule. In recognition of its significance, in 1987, the Korean government designated the helmet as Treasure 904, making it the first artifact of Western origin ever to receive such designation. In 1994, Son Gijeong donated this prized artifact to the government to be exhibited in the National Museum of Korea, declaring “This helmet is not mine; it belongs to all Korean people.”

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Additional resources

Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website

Son Kee Chung Memorial Hall

The Nazi Olympics in Berlin from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Bronze helmet donated by Olympic gold medalist Son Gijeong," in Smarthistory, August 2, 2023, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bronze-helmet-donated-by-olympic-gold-medalist-son-gijeong/.