'Great Fun for Savages'
The third Olympiad was something of a joke, but Anthropology Days, the bizarre sporting spectacle held just before it, was no laughing matter, writes TOM HAWTHORN. Even in 1904, pitting 'primitives' against each other was a mockery -- except for racists.
By TOM HAWTHORN
Saturday, August 14, 2004 - Globe and Mail.
Saturday, August 14, 2004 - Globe and Mail.
With his flowing grey beard and long hair, Sangyea Hiramura looked like a prophet out of the Old Testament. And at 57, he was a patriarch of sorts, the leader of a nine-member group of Ainu, the indigenous people of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
One hundred years ago, three Ainu couples, a lone male and two young girls travelled to the United States to take part in a living exhibit arranged for the crowds at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. They lived in a large thatched hut on the fairgrounds, part of a global village in which peoples from around the world -- called the primitives -- were on display.
Hiramura passed much of the time weaving baskets, but his duties also required that he play an unwitting role in perhaps the most shameful event in Olympic history. On Aug. 12 and 13 of that year, in a run-up to the third Olympiad being held in conjunction with the world fair, U.S. officials organized something called Anthropology Days. "Hairy Ainus" were pitted against "savage Zulus" and other aboriginals in sporting contests to determine strength and speed.
It may seem outlandish today, as the centennial of those two dark days coincides with the return of the modern Olympics to their Grecian homeland, but for years afterward, white supremacists seized upon what happened on the playing fields at St. Louis for evidence to support their twisted notion.
The 1904 Olympics were a slapdash affair. The Games were overshadowed by the chaos of the world's fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) of which they too were a part. All manner of competition was billed as Olympic, including the annual elementary-school track meet.
The events now considered to have been part of the games of the third Olympiad involved 687 athletes -- 523 of them American and the remaining 164 from 12 other countries. Some races featured solely American competitors. Only a handful of Europeans attended, and even Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French father of the modern Olympics, skipped the Games.
Anthropology Days, meanwhile, was organized by the heads of the anthropology and physical education departments of the world exposition. The idea was to test the popular 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 two-day contest was held in mid-August when many scientists were attending the fair.
"Anthropology Days had both a pseudo-scientific and imperialist ambition," says Bruce Kidd, dean of physical education at the University of Toronto and a former Olympian. "There was a gloss of experiment around it.
"The so-called primitive peoples had no chance to excel under the competition. They were forced to compete."
A Los Angeles Times headline captured the competition's unstated spirit: "Great Fun For Savages. Hairy Ainus of Japan to shoot at St. Louis. Untutored African Pigmies will throw mud."
The events included several that were to be held at the Olympic track and field meet two weeks later -- hurdles, shot put, high jump, broad jump, javelin toss. The participants, ranging from mere boys to aged men, wearing loincloths and kimonos, had to throw a baseball as well as try the shot put. Pole-climbing and bolo-throwing contests also were held.
They competitors were given just cursory instructions -- in English -- and most had never seen the sports they were to attempt. In the 100-yard dash, some runners stopped at the finish line, while others ducked beneath the tape.
The unfairness was most evident in the 56-pound (25.4-kilogram) toss, a challenge even to those athletes who spend years perfecting their technique. The Olympic event, since discontinued, was won at St. Louis by Etienne Desmarteau, a Montreal policeman who defeated crowd favourite John Flanagan, a New York policeman. His throw measured 34 feet, 4 inches (10.465 metres) while the best result during Anthropology Days was a mere 15 feet, 11 inches by George Mentz, a Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
Mr. Hiramura, at 57 certainly past his physical prime, threw the weight only a few feet. His lack of technique, or interest, did not spare him from ridicule. "It can probably be said, without fear of contradiction, that never before in the history of sports in the world were such poor performances recorded for weight throwing," reads Spalding's Official Athletic Almanac.
Although uncredited, the almanac's report on Anthropology Days probably was written by its editor, James E. Sullivan, and is a digest of condescension. The performances are dismissed as disappointing and ridiculous. Mr. Sullivan found that the results "prove conclusively that the savage is not the natural athlete we have been led to believe."
The World's Fair village from which participants were taken was organized with what popular prejudice regarded as the most advanced tribes at the centre, where there stood a "model Indian school." In this human zoo, the so-called least civilized peoples were exhibited at the fringes.
The crown jewel was a 47-acre site organized by the U.S. government to display the conquered peoples of the Philippines, the newest American possession acquired during the recently concluded Spanish-American War. An homage to imperialism, the exhibit was designed to show how America would bring progress to savage peoples.
The participants in the Anthropology Days events included Crow, Sioux, Pawnee, Navajo and Chippewa people from the United States; Ainu from Japan; Cocopa from Baja California in Mexico; two "Syrians from Beyrout," Patagonians from South America, Zulus and Pygmies from Africa and, from the Philippines, Moros, Negritos and Igorots. Teobang, another African, was described simply as a cannibal.
The Spalding report praised a mud-throwing contest and a pole-climbing exhibition, but sneered at shinny games played by the Pygmy and Cocopa. "The uninteresting exhibition showed conclusively the lack of necessary brain to make the team and its work a success," Mr. Sullivan wrote, "for they absolutely gave no assistance to each other, and so far as team work was concerned, it was a case of purely individual attempt on the part of the players."
De Coubertin was appalled at the vulgarity implicit in the segregated Anthropology Days. "In no place but America," he said, "would one have dared place such events on a program."
Yet the event was used for years afterward to buttress the prejudices of white racial supremacists, according to Matti Goksoyr of the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education in Oslo.
A Swedish sports encyclopedia published in 1943, Prof. Goksoyr says, took the results seriously, the author concluding that "it is not possible to make sports stars out of African negroes." A similar stance was adopted earlier by German researcher Arthur Grix, who determined that racial characteristics made poor runners of the Tarahumaras of Mexico's Chihuahua state.
"When you ghettoize people, when you single them out for ridicule and mistreatment, then put them on display where they can't win, it's a self-predicting display," says Dr. Kidd, a member of Canada's track team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. "It's an extreme example of how separate treatment can rarely be equal."
Two weeks after the farce of Anthropology Days, Lentauw and Yamasani, Tswana tribesman who were part of a Boer War exhibit at the fair, entered the Olympic marathon and became the first black Africans to compete. Lentauw was chased for nearly a mile through a cornfield by two dogs, yet returned to the course to finish ninth. Yamasani placed 12th.
The St. Louis Olympics featured several non-white athletes in a Games in which competitors represented clubs, not nations. So, while Winnipeg's Shamrock squad won the gold medal in lacrosse, the bronze went to a Mohawk team from Brantford, Ont., and Peter Deer, a Mohawk miler from the Montreal Athletic Club, placed sixth in the 1,500 metres. American George Poage became the first black person to win a medal, taking the bronze in both the 200-metre and 400-metre hurdles.
Those Games were also the first in which gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded. But the organizers provide no such honours for the victorious "savages" at Anthropology Days. Instead of a medal, the winners were handed an American flag.
Tom Hawthorn is a freelance writer based in Victoria.