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It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Since the Olympics are on, I’ve been trying to get my boys to watch some events with me because it’s the first time they’re old enough to appreciate it. But with the world suffering from a pandemic, and no fans in the stadiums, along with the time difference, it just isn’t the same.

I remember when I was young I always looked forward to the Olympics. I loved watching the athletes compete and seeing who would win. But there’s one moment that has always been my favorite by a country mile. The men’s marathon at the 1992 Barcelona games.

I remember sitting in front of our old RCA TV and cheering as it came down to the Korean runner Hwang Young-Cho and Japanese runner Koichi Morishita. In the second half of the race the two of them pulled away from the pack and ran shoulder-to-shoulder for miles. You could practically feel how badly they both wanted to win. 

As for me, I sat on our carpet with my eyes glued to the screen from the other side of the planet, and all I knew was I wanted the Korean guy to beat that Japanese bastard. Relax, I say it without contempt. I had plenty of Japanese friends and have nothing against the people of Japan but the history between the two nations is impossible to ignore.

So yeah, I definitely wanted the Korean guy to win. I watched as they battled back and forth for miles through the streets of Barcelona. I had no idea what was going to happen but I would have given just about anything I had to get the outcome I wanted.

Then the Korean guy started pulling away.

I clapped and cheered and shouted at the TV and soon I could hear all the other Korean residents in our little apartment complex doing the same. I watched as Hwang pulled into a not-so-crowded stadium full of people who were waiting for the start of the closing ceremonies. He waved and blew kisses and then he crossed the finish line, took two or three more steps, and collapsed face first onto the track. He was so spent he couldn’t even get up. Paramedics had to come and take him away on a stretcher.

Then the Japanese runner finished and he too collapsed. Little by little the other runners followed and many of them collapsed as well. It must have been an amazing scene as these runners from all over the world barely crossed the finish line and then struggled to take another step.

If you’re curious what it was like, I recommend this video.

Anyway, I bring all this up not just because the Olympics are happening right now but because I realized something recently. I realized the value of not giving up and sticking with something for a long time.

There’s that famous saying: it’s a marathon not a sprint. To me it means you can’t expect to just have everything happen right away because it can take a long time to build something truly valuable. It’s not like Amazon was an overnight success, or Google, or Facebook, or Apple, or any of these huge companies that have been around for decades. Sure some of them saw success early on, but it wasn’t until after years and years of iterating and improving their products that they got to be where they are today.

I realized this because after more than a decade at my company, I was recently promoted to vice president. I know that isn’t really a big deal. Vice presidents are a dime a dozen at my company, but for someone who immigrated here as a boy, only to lose his father a few years later and even briefly returned to Korea just before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul because his mom was considering giving up the American dream and going back to our motherland, I can’t help but feel at least a moderate sense of accomplishment.

I also realized that it’s because I kept working, and putting in the effort, and never giving up.

I never really thought of it this way before, but I like to think that I’ve gotten this far because people see me as someone they can count on, someone dependable, and trustworthy. I remember before we got married, my wife said what she liked most about me was that I made her feel secure. If I really think about it, that’s all I want, to make everyone around me feel secure.

Oh, and one more thing, while looking for information on that 1992 Olympic marathon I discovered something I never knew. In the 1936 games held in Berlin, which is mostly famous because of Jesse Owens and Hitler, the winner of the marathon that year was actually the first time a man of Korean descent won Olympic gold. Except even to this day that medal is counted as Japan’s because Korea was under Japanese imperialist rule at the time. The winner, Sohn Kee-Chung, was forced to run under the Japanese flag and even made to change his name to the more Japanese sounding Son Kitei. When he was awarded the gold medal and the Japanese anthem was played in the stadium, he hung his head in shame, only what he couldn’t have realized or imagined was that 56 years later, he would be cheering in the stands in Barcelona as one of his own students would win Olympic gold in the marathon and he would get to listen as the Korean national anthem played on the speakers and watch as his nation’s flag was raised to the heavens.