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Boston Marathon Course section

Getting defender Lee to brag an uphill battle

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

He does not yet consider himself a member of the pantheon of Korean pavement-pounders, up alongside Sohn Kee Chung, Yun Bok Suh, Kee Yong Ham, and Hwang Young Cho. It wasn't enough for Lee Bong Ju to win an Olympic silver medal. Not enough to become the first man from his country to win at Boston in more than half a century.

''I am not yet worthy of being part of the tradition of great Korean marathoners,'' says the 31-year-old Lee, who'll take the line as defending champion in Hopkinton tomorrow at noon. ''I haven't done enough yet. I still have to do quite a bit more to get there.''

Maybe it's Korean self-effacement. Or maybe Lee's demurral is a throwback to a time when whatever he did wasn't sufficient. Until Lee ended Kenya's decade-long domination with his startling triumph here last year, the Seoul Man was considered a second banana, no matter how many laurel wreaths he collected.

Lee was second - by the smallest margin in Olympic history - to South Africa's Josia Thugwane in Atlanta. He was second in Rotterdam in 1998. Second in Tokyo and Fukuoka, Japan, in 2000.

So there was no reason to believe that Lee would win in Boston, where he'd placed 11th in his 1994 debut. No Korean had won here since Kee led a 1-2-3 sweep in 1950 and no non-Kenyan since Italy's Gelindo Bordin in 1990.

And Lee, besides coming off an injury, arrived here distraught over the death of his father Hae Ku a month earlier. ''I had a very big personal problem,'' Lee said through interpreter Grigore Scarlatoiu at the BAA press conference last week. ''I was still experiencing the tremendous torment of that loss.''

So when the goateed Lee shook off Ecuador's Silvio Guerra and Kenya's Joshua Chelang'a and David Busienei after the Newton Hills and ran into Copley Square alone with the Korean taegeuk (yin-yang) symbol on his headband and chest, it came as a shock to his countrymen, who were sleeping when he broke the tape.

''They were certainly surprised and overjoyed,'' says Lee. ''It was probably greater for the fact that they hadn't expected me to win. That is what made it such a great event.''

Lee, whose victory was the nation's top story that day, returned to Seoul as a hero. ''It was a grand welcome,'' he says. ''Everyone in Korea was happy to have me back. The scale of the welcoming ceremony was the scale of an Olympic gold medalist. They even had a car parade for me.''

It was the celebratory bash that Koreans had anticipated throwing for Lee ever since he won consecutive national titles and became the next great hope of the Land of the Morning Calm.

Lee, the son of a poor rice farmer, had taken up running because he didn't have the money for taekwondo or soccer. He knew so little about track and field that he turned up for practice at his rural agricultural high school in a pair of tennis shorts. ''I became the laughingstock for a while,'' Lee told a Seoul newspaper.

By 1993, Lee had won back-to-back national marathon crowns. Three years later, he went to Olympus as Korea's best bet for a medal. Any of the three colors appeared possible when Lee entered the stadium with Thugwane and Kenya's Eric Wainaina.

When he threw up his hands in victory after taking silver, just three seconds behind Thugwane, a bystander was puzzled by Lee's excitement. ''He wondered if it was because I would be exempted from my military service obligations,'' Lee said.

Though he came back to win at Fukuoka four months later in 2 hours 10 minutes 48 seconds and again at the 1998 Asian Games, Lee found himself labeled as a man who was content to be runner-up. By 1999, after a 12th-place effort at London, Lee found himself considered second on his Kolon club team to junior Kim Yi Yong, who'd been runner-up at Rotterdam the same day.

After Kim went into the army and the club went through a coaching shakeup, Lee quit, spurring a mass walkout that became known as the ''Kolon Incident''. ''I honestly felt that it would be the end of my career,'' Lee said later. ''And I couldn't stop thinking so.''

After he finished second at Tokyo in 2:07:20 two years ago to win his return ticket to Olympus, a redeemed Lee wept all night. Then, in Sydney, he collided with a rival after 11 miles, took a tumble, and ended up a deflated 24th.

''This was a great disappointment to the Korean people, as they were depending on me winning the gold,'' Lee said later. ''I could not believe it myself.''

Though he rebounded with a 2:09:04 at Fukuoka two months later, nobody expected much from Lee in Boston last year - including himself. ''I did not really come here to win the race,'' he admits. ''But I was thorough in my preparation, I ran a good race - and I win.''

When he returned home, Lee suddenly found himself elevated to the same level as Olympic champions Sohn (who was forced to run for occupier Japan in 1936, but refused to acknowledge its flag and anthem on the podium) and Hwang (who outkicked a Japanese rival in 1992), and Boston victors Yun (Korea's first Boston champion in 1947) and Kee (dubbed ''Swift Premium Ham'' in 1950).

''I was very well known before I won,'' says Lee. ''What has changed in Korea since then is that more and more people have been running. If not a marathon, at least they are jogging in the morning. So the people are probably healthier and happier since I won here.''

If only his father, who'd never been impressed by Lee's hardtop feats, had lived a few weeks longer. ''You should've waited just a little bit more,'' Lee thought, when he bowed before Hae Ku's grave with his laurel wreath and gold medal.

Last year's race was for Lee's father. This one is for fiancee Kim Mi Soon, whom Lee will marry in Seoul a week from today. ''I would like to dedicate an excellent result to my wife-to-be,'' he says.

If Lee wins, he'll be the first non-African to claim consecutive BAA crowns since England's Geoff Smith in 1985 and the first Asian ever to manage it.

This time, he knows, his countrymen will be pulling all-nighters to follow his every footfall. If he holds off the world again tomorrow, even Lee may admit he belongs with his country's macadam gods. ''It will be difficult,'' he says. ''It will be burdensome. But I will take on the challenge.''

This story ran on page D14 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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