Five Ring Circus

The Savage GamesAs it is Olympic year, I had a notion to focus on competitors past and present for the next round of ABC Wednesday, but filling the alphabet proved a bit tricky. One or two may appear, but on the whole I dropped the idea.

However, I came across this story of the 1904 Olympics held in St Louis that really shocked me, not just because it’s a shameful stain on the reputation of the Olympic movement, but also because it isn’t a story I’d ever come across before and there isn’t much much online to shed more light on it either.

I won’t repeat the whole of the Daily Mail article – you can read it yourself – but a précis of what happened in the days leading up those games is worth including.

The 1904 Olympics got off to a bad start after they were awarded to Chicago. However, they were to take place in the same year as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the organisers were determined that no other international event should steal their thunder.

They threatened to put on their own sporting spectacle that would eclipse the Olympics unless the venue was switched to St Louis. Pierre de Coubertin reluctantly gave in to this blatant blackmail and awarded the games to St Louis.

James Edward Sullivan

James Edward Sullivan

But the man who would bring shame on the whole Olympic movement was the 1904 games director, James Edward Sullivan.

Sullivan was an Irish American from New York and secretary of the Amateur Athletics Union at the time of the games. He was also a bigot who set out to use the event in a racial experiment to prove that the natural athleticism of ‘savages’ was no match for that of ‘civilised’ white Americans.

In what he called the Anthropology Days, Sullivan had brought together Native Americans and ethnic tribesmen from Africa, South America, the Middle East, the Philippines and the far north of Japan with the sole purpose of demonstrating their ineptitude on track and field.

The Savage GamesSullivan even invited the world’s leading scientists to observe his ‘experiment’ and for the crowds that flocked to watch it became known as the Savage Olympics.

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.

As I said, you can read more about it in the Daily Mail article and I’m not sure what shocked me most – that it had happened at all or that it seems to have been conveniently forgotten.

There is no mention of it on Sullivan’s Wikipedia page, but for those who prefer a more measured read, try The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism from the University of Nebraska.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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