THE SAVAGES OLYMPICS; It's a Shameful Stain on Olympic History - Pygmies, Cannibals and Tribesmen Forced to Compete at the 1904 Games in a Twisted Bid to Prove the White Man's Supremacy

Daily Mail (London), July 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

THE SAVAGES OLYMPICS; It's a Shameful Stain on Olympic History - Pygmies, Cannibals and Tribesmen Forced to Compete at the 1904 Games in a Twisted Bid to Prove the White Man's Supremacy


Byline: by David Jones

THE Olympic sprint final was about to commence and the competitors were on their marks. But as the starter's pistol cracked, it became clear this was no ordinary race.

Some of the male runners were so alarmed by the bang that they froze, while others -- unaware of the imperative to run their fastest -- began ambling down the track.

Amid jeers from hordes of hot-dog munching spectators, they eventually reached the finishing line in times that would be beaten by an average schoolboy athlete.

Elsewhere in the stadium, the athletes' performances were equally inept. They stared quizzically at the javelin, discus and jumping pits before making the feeblest throws and shortest leaps ever seen at the Olympics.

If these farcical scenes carry echoes of that Monty Python sketch where race contestants meander off in different directions, then at the third modern Olympiad, in St Louis, Missouri, in 1904, they were all too real.

The hapless competitors - or 'savages', as the white American organisers preferred, were Native Americans and ethnic tribesmen shipped in from places as far away as Africa, South America, the Middle East, the Philippines and the far north of Japan.

One Congolese pygmy, with sharpened teeth, was simply described in the official games report as a 'cannibal'.

They had been conscripted as Olympic athletes in a shocking racial experiment designed to prove their natural athleticism was inferior to that of 'civilised' white Americans.

It was devised by games director James Edward Sullivan, a bigoted Irish-New Yorker who decided the tribesmen should be pitted against one another over two days in August 1904, as a prelude to the main Games.

Sullivan called this tawdry sideshow the 'Anthropology Days', and invited the world's leading scientists to watch the guinea-pigs try - and inevitably fail - to match the athletic feats of muscular, well nourished, all-American heroes.

But among the crowds who thronged to gawp at the grim spectacle, the competition became known as 'The Savages Olympics'.

Surely the most shameful interlude in Olympic history, it is unlikely to be mentioned by London 2012 organisers, for even in those unenlightened times it appalled the modern Games' founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Like most of Europe's top athletes, De Coubertin didn't attend the St Louis games because the journey was too arduous, but he was furious when he heard about Sullivan's 'anthropological' trials.

Olympics overlords have rarely spoken of the appallingly insensitive experiment since then.

Memories of it have been recently revived, however, following the airing of a controversial theory by US Olympic gold medallist sprinter Michael Johnson, who believes black sprinters may hold a biological advantage because they possess a 'superior athletic gene'.

JOHNSON believes there is compelling evidence that this 'go-faster DNA' was inbred during the days of slavery, when only the fittest survived the gruelling journey from Africa to the Caribbean, and plantation bosses often ran breeding programmes to produce the strongest workers.

Though some experts agree, others are sceptical, among them John Entine, author of the ground-breaking book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sport And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It.

Johnson is 'intuitively correct but factually mixed up', Entine told me, arguing that the undeniable biological superiority of Jamaicans such as Usain Bolt and other Afro-Caribbean sprinters could not be attributed to a single gene.

Rather, he says, it is more likely to be down to a 'constellation of genes' that have evolved over thousands of years for a variety of environmental, climatic and cultural reasons. Whatever the truth, the irony is that today we are trying to fathom the superiority of black athletes, whereas 108 years ago in Missouri their inferiority was said to have been proved beyond doubt. …

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