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The Savages’ Olympics:
Some of the male runners were so alarmed by the bang that they froze, while others â€” unaware of the imperative to run their fastest â€” 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 â€” 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 1904 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.
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
James Edward Sullivan, the Irish-New Yorker responsible for the The Savages Olympics 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 U.S. 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.
The racial experiment in St Louis was a debacle, however.
On the first morning the tribesmen were herded together and given rudimentary instructions on the various sports’ rules â€” but as these were barked in English, most hadn’t a clue what was being said.
‘Great Fun for Savages!’ trumpeted the Los Angeles Times, though the forlorn photographs published belied the jaunty headline, and their results were predictably poor.
One African pygmy called Lamba ran, or rather jogged, the 100 metres in 14.35 seconds, which meant â€” as Sullivan pointed out disdainfully in his report â€” that U.S. champion Arthur Duffy could have given him a 40-yard start and still won at a canter.
In the running broad jump (early long-jump) the efforts of the pygmies, Ainus and Indians were deemed so abject that the leading American leapt considerably further from a standing start.One the second day ‘the savagesâ€‰.â€‰.â€‰. showed what they could accomplish in some of their own particular sports’, Sullivan noted. ‘The most marvellous performance at pole-climbing ever witnessed in this country was given by an Igorot (a native Filipino) who climbed 50ft in 20.35 seconds.’
But he was disappointed with their ineptitude at javelin and archery, where they should surely have shone given their cultural dependence on these traditional weapons.
And though one renowned anthropologist â€” a Dr McGee â€” had the wisdom to suggest they might have fared better had they been professionally trained, Sullivan would have no truck with such concessionary theories.
‘The whole meeting proves that the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view,’ he averred.
Sullivan said his Anthropology Days had debunked the mythical existence of the ‘noble savage’: a supreme natural athlete whose strength and skill was honed by living a pure, simple outdoor life.
Black American track athlete Jesse Owens
Concluding his self-congratulatory report, he wrote: ‘Lecturers and authors will, in the future, please omit all reference to the natural athletic ability.’
For the ensuing half-century or more, as the doctrine of white supremacy grew dangerously unchecked across Europe and America, as manifested in the rise of Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan, many supposedly reputable scientists did just that.
Even as late as 1943, seven years after the black American track and field star Jesse Owens won four gold medals under Hitler’s impassive gaze at the Berlin Olympics, a Swedish sporting encyclopaedia declared unequivocally that ‘it is not possible to make sports stars out of African Negroes’.
Where did its ‘evidence’ come from? St Louis, of course.
It was not until modern black sporting legends such as Olympic 100 metres champions Bob Hayes, Jim Hines and Carl Lewis began to dominate the explosive events, not to mention sports such as basketball, boxing, grid-iron football and soccer â€” where speed, agility and strength are paramount â€” that the white establishment began to accept the inescapable truth.
Should anyone doubt this, the statistics offer conclusive proof.
In the past four Olympic men’s 100â€‰metres finals, every one of the 32 competitors has been of West African descent, even though they make up just eight per cent of the world’s population.
In London next month, the sprint will almost certainly be fought out again by the incredible lightning Bolt and seven other runners of similar ethnicity.
It would seem, then, that Michael Johnson’s so-called ‘superior athletic gene’ may well exist.
When a furious Baron de Coubertin learned how Sullivan planned to tarnish his noble ideal by staging a pseudo-scientific circus, he could only reflect that such displays ‘will, of course, lose their appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw and leave the white men behind’.
History has proved the father of the modern Olympics to be right.
By staging their vile experiment, Sullivan and his white supremacist cronies demonstrated just one thing: that they were the real heathens at the Savages Olympics.
Additional reporting by BRIAN OLIVER.