Ahn Chang-nam’s Airplane up in the Sky, Eom Bok-dong’s Bicycle Seen Below
“Look at Ahn Chang-nam’s airplane high up in the sky,
Eom Bok-dong’s bicycle is seen below,
We can go, we can’t go... How much did we cry….”
During the dark period of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea in the 1920s, a song praising two Korean people spread throughout the country. One is for Korea’s first pilot Ahn Chang-nam and the other is dedicated to legendary cyclist Eom Bok-dong. With silver wheels, both helped Korean people release their pent-up frustrations. Eom, in particular, always beat his Japanese rivals to inspire national pride.
Birth of a Star Cyclist
It is assumed that the bicycle, which was created by French aristocrat Comte de Sivrac in 1790, was introduced to Korea during the latter years of the Joseon Kingdom. At the time, the bicycle was the means of transportation for the wealthy class. As it moved without a palanquin bearer, it was called a ‘self-moving cart.’
In the early 1900s, cycling competitions were held to promote bicycle sales. As the competitions became increasingly popular, many bicycle sellers trained employees at their shops and had them participate in the cycle races. Eom Bok-dong was no exception.
Born in Seoul in 1892, Eom worked at a bicycle shop in Pyeongtaek after graduating from elementary school. He traveled between Seoul and Pyeongtaek by bike, following bicycle peddlers, and trained himself as an amateur cyclist.
In April of 1913, at the age of 21, Eom won the Joseon National Cycling Competition to emerge as a national hero. Co-hosted by two newspapers— the Kyungsung Ilbo and Maeil Sinbo—the competition was held in Incheon (April 12th), Yongsan (April 13th) and Pyongyang (April 27th). Eom, with a used bicycle, took first place in the Yongsan race on April 13th, beating out four Japanese players.
In the Pyongyang race on April 27th, Eum also surpassed Japanese cyclists and came in first, while another Korean cyclist Hwang Su-bok finished third. Thanks to their achievements, Korean people were able to do away with their sorrow and despair that had accumulated under the oppressive rule of the Japanese colonial government. Amid tears of joy and cheers, Eom instantly rose to stardom.
Cycling Hero of the Century
At the time, cycle races were mostly about club activities or promotional events of the bicycle industry. But when Eom’s victory became known all over the country, cycling competitions became famous sporting events where spectators would gather like clouds. Eom also won other major competitions, including the 1922 Joseon National Cycling Competition, which was held in Pyongyang for two days from May 31st.
Eom usually stayed in the middle of the group halfway through the race for proper pacing, but suddenly, he would drastically speed up as the race neared its end. Spectators watched the race on edge and finally erupted into tearful cheers when he came up from behind, right before the last lap, and finished first.
As Eom reigned as the unchallenged king of cycling, however, outrageous incidents occurred to block his sole lead.
During a cycle race on May 2nd, 1920, when Eom was poised to win the race, a Japanese referee abruptly stopped the game, citing the sunset. As Eom protested strongly, he was beaten by Japanese people. At another race in Sangju on April 2nd, 1922, he suffered a serious injury due to a Japanese player’s obstruction.
Yet, Eom quickly rejoined the race even after he was run into by his rival and fell, and won the race in the end by turning the tables dramatically. He won consecutive victories in the ‘Joseon Top Championships’ and the ‘Race for 20 Laps.’ On April 20th, 1932, he won the 10,000-meter race at the ‘Joseon National Cycling Competition’ at the age of 48. That earned him the nickname “phoenix.”
The Hero was Gone but His Name is Forever
Eom overcame various difficulties and achieved victory. He was more than just a sports star, but also an icon of hope and pride for Korean people who harbored feelings of inferiority under Japanese colonial rule.
The last days for the hero were lonely, though. After he retired in the early 1930s, he found it difficult to make a living. While wandering from place to place, he was killed in an explosion on the hills near Dongducheon in 1951, during the middle of the Korean War. To honor the cycling hero, the Korea Cycling Federation has held a cycling competition named after Eom Bok-dong annually since 1977. It is said that a sports film about this great cyclist will be made this year. Eom, who brought Korean people together during the gloomy colonial period, will be remembered forever.