Forgotten ‘Bicycle king of the East’: sports hero Um Bok-dong and the formation of sports heritage in South Korea

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cyclist Um Bok-dong (1892–1951[1952?]), nicknamed ‘Bicycle king of the East’, was the biggest Korean sports hero from the 1910s and into the 1920s, a time when Korea was subjected to Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945). He beat Japanese rivals and inspired his fellow compatriots, becoming their source of pride at a difficult era. In post-colonial South Korea, however, Um was nearly completely forgotten. There are barely any commemorative initiatives for him and hardly any Korean-language academic works on him. Scholarly works in English on Um are non-existent. By exploring this phenomenon the paper opens up a discussion on sports heroes and their place in heritagisation, and it contributes to the relatively scant scholarship on sports heritage. The discussion revolves around tracing when, why, and how South Korea began paying much more attention to sports heritage, and, in light of the findings, it analyzes Um’s forgetfulness in the process. I argue that while South Korea began investing more meaningfully in sports heritage since the early 2000s, Um was forgotten primarily because another athlete, Sohn Kee-chung, occupied the representative spot of the ‘sports hero of the colonial period’. In this context, I stress the importance of influential agents for successful heritagisation.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)495-510
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Heritage Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021


  • Sohn Kee-chung
  • South Korea
  • Um Bok-dong
  • collective memory
  • sports heritage
  • sports heroes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Conservation
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Tourism, Leisure and Hospitality Management
  • Museology


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