The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Olympics have long been an arena for the fight between racism and equality

While some have tried to use sporting events to ‘prove’ prejudices, athletes of color have fought to shatter stereotypes

American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson on May 23 at Gateshead International Stadium in England. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the Tokyo Olympic Games begin, the shadow of controversy already hangs over them.

During the U.S. Olympic trials, champion sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for marijuana use and received a suspension that effectively barred her from competing, inciting outrage from those who feel that the drug is not a performance enhancer. In addition, hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s act of protest on the medal stand at the track and field trials incensed conservative critics, who demanded that Berry not be allowed to represent the nation.

Outside the United States, following global standards regarding testosterone levels, Zambia banned two young 400-meter female runners from participation, one who just ran the fastest time in the world this year. This builds on the 2019 decision to exclude South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who was ruled to be intersex and forced to take testosterone suppressants to continue to compete. And recently, FINA banned swim caps suitable for kinky and curly hair, primarily affecting athletes of color.

Race has been at the core of all of these controversies, especially because officials have allowed White transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand to compete, while Jenna Prandini, who is also White, replaced Richardson after she was suspended.

This is nothing new. If past is prologue, further incidents tied to racism will erupt during the games themselves, because bigots have long envisioned the Olympics as a platform for “proving” their prejudices, while athletes of color have used them to shatter such stereotypes.

The mixing of sports and race — and racism — has a very long history, including at the Olympics. In 1904, officials at the St. Louis Olympics decided to put on a “Special Olympics,” later named “Anthropology Days.” This additional competition was primarily the brainchild of games organizer James Edward Sullivan and William McGee, the founding president of the American Anthropological Association and the National Geographic Society. Their goal, McGee said, was to establish “in quantitative measure the inferiority of primitive peoples … in that coordination of mind and body which seems to mark the outcome of human development and measure the attainment of human excellence.”

The two men and their fellow organizers reflected the dominant intellectual sentiments of the time: a firm belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority, eugenics and social Darwinism. Europeans, Americans and even the Japanese sought justifications for imperialist urges and the subjugation of “inferior” non-Whites. For people like McGee, sports became another way to prove their superiority and the worthiness of these efforts.

The organizers of what became known as the “Savage Games” gathered people from the non-industrialized world, a large number of whom were simultaneously participating in the 1904 World’s Fair, which was also in St Louis. Fair organizers created exhibitions that highlighted the primitive ways of life of many people, especially those from Africa and Asia, but also Native Americans from the United States and Mexico. For the games, they wanted to test the notion that “the average savage was fleet of foot, strong of limb, accurate with the bow and arrow and expert in throwing the stone.”

The organizers hosted degrading competitions, including tree climbing and mud throwing, along with a Mohawk and Seneca lacrosse match, prompting a Los Angeles Times headline heralding: “Untutored African Pigmies will throw mud.” The organizers drafted White Olympians, primarily Americans, to compete against the native people and then stacked the decks against the non-White competitors, replete with having the judges explain the rules in English, a language few of them understood.

The skewed results, therefore, should have surprised no one. The inexperienced racers froze when the starting pistol fired, not knowing what it meant. When they approached the finishing tapes, they ducked under or stopped because they did not understand what to do. Spectators jeered the underperforming participants, among them a Congolese pygmy with sharpened teeth who organizers characterized as a “cannibal.” They also mocked the half-naked African participants in a city dominated by Jim Crow. And they reveled in celebrating White victories.

The organizers used some events to reinforce existing stereotypes that many people of color related closely to monkeys that hadn’t evolved. On the second and final day of competition, Sullivan crowed in a report of the event about the “most marvellous [sic] performance of pole-climbing” by a Filipino Igorot, “who climbed 50 ft in 20.35 seconds.” Such performances led one newspaper headline to trumpet: “Great Fun for Savages.” Ironically, winners of the events received American flags, not medals, another sign of how ideas about racial superiority animated the U.S. imperialism of the times.

Afterward, observers underscored the “inferiority” of the native people. Sullivan stressed that the performances “prove conclusively that the savage is not the natural athlete we have been led to believe.” Another argued that it helped establish “that the White man leads the races of the world, both physically and mentally.”

In reality, of course, all that was revealed was the bigotry of the organizers and the depths to which they were willing to resort to confirm their biases. Nonetheless, these views would remain dominant through the end of World War II.

But not everyone approved. The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, for one, complained bitterly about the spectacle. “In no place but America would one have dared place such events on a program,” he emphasized. Nearly three decades later, he still seethed over the farce: “Now tell me that the world has not advanced since then and that no progress has been made in the sporting spirit.”

He was correct. Even in 1904, in the actual Olympics, people of color had an impact. African American George Poage ignored calls to boycott the games because of St. Louis’s notorious reputation for racism and won two bronze medals in track and field. Tswana tribesman Lentauw, who was part of the Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair, finished ninth in the marathon despite taking a mile long detour through corn fields when chased by dogs.

And things advanced quickly from there. In 1912, Native American Jim Thorpe dazzled the world at the Oslo Games, winning two golds including the difficult 10-event decathlon. Afterward, Norwegian King Gustav VI declared: “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Jesse Owens, an African American track and field standout, shattered the myth of Aryan superiority at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, crushing the competition while infuriating Hitler. Athletes like Owens had opportunities not available earlier, and he and others like Black boxer Joe Louis destroyed negative stereotypes with their achievements.

After World War II, numerous athletes of color posted record-setting performances during the Olympics. Today, some of the biggest stars competing in the games are athletes of color, including track star Gabby Thomas, a Harvard graduate with a degree in neurobiology and global health and health policy, along with swimmer and gold medal winner Simone Manuel and gymnastics superstar Simone Biles.

Yet despite such performances proving conclusively that race has little to do with athletic prowess, race has remained a central fault line in sports, with gender fusing with it, especially over the past half century. That has led to continued, and fairly regular, incidents during the Olympics, including the protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968, and the African boycott of the 1976 games in Montreal over the inclusion of South Africa. The Olympics have often been a platform for promoting social change — and sometimes for trying to entrench bigoted racial and gender views.

With the continued persistence of racism, not just in the United States, but globally, the Tokyo Olympics are unlikely to be any different. The organizers have already issued mandates prohibiting the use of the podium for political causes. However, with major areas of political contestation and movements to finally achieve equality occurring around the world, athletes are unlikely to obey such speech-stifling rules. If history is any guide, conservatives will then howl about their “politicization” of the Olympics, without recognizing how White organizers and racists have long seen the Games as a platform for reinforcing their own politics. As the 1904 “Savage Games” demonstrates, racism has shaped — and continues to shape — sports as well as most societies.