The Most Racist Olympics Event Ever: Anthropology Days

“And how will the new republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? How will it deal with the yellow man?” —H.G. Wells

In A Nutshell

In 1904, the US hosted their first ever Olympics . . . and they also hosted the Anthropology Days “Special Olympics,” which put people from the human zoos on display, participating in different sporting events in the hopes that they would display their imagined racial inferiority. The games were, of course, a disaster, and organizers were proud. They’d proved their inferiority, after all, and organizers didn’t even have to tell them how to play any of the sports or anything.

The Whole Bushel

There aren’t many sporting events that can compare to the Olympics. The pageantry, the elaborate stadiums, the parades, the celebrations that take over entire cities. It wasn’t always like that, though. The first Olympics held in the United States were the sort of spectacle that would have people today clamoring for apologies and cancellations of any future events.

It was 1904, and it was an exciting time to be in St. Louis. At the same time the Olympics were going on, so was the World’s Fair. That’s not a coincidence, and it’s also when the shenanigans start.

Originally, the Olympic committee gave the first US games to Chicago. St. Louis, however, was having none of that, and protested that they were good enough for the World’s Fair, they were good enough for the Olympics, and they weren’t about to have any of their glory stolen by Chicago. Their first protests ignored, they raised the bar and started organizing their own massive athletic games, and it was going to be much, much better than whatever Chicago was planning.

St. Louis was going to show them what-for.

The Olympic organizers backed down, not wanting attention taken from their games, and the Olympics went to St. Louis.

It didn’t go as planned. Most European athletes had no interest in making the trek to what was viewed as a mediocre town in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA. Only about half the competitions couldn’t even boast a non-US entrant, and rather than being the great, world-changing event they were hoping for, they got somewhat absorbed by the World’s Fair.

This didn’t make them any less bizarre.

While the World’s Fair side of things had stuff like fun new foods and a human zoo, the Olympics were taking the chance to show off just what kind of superpower the up-and-coming United States was. While white America was inventing things like the telegraph, darker-skinned savages were on display eating dogs.

Clearly, there was a message.

That message came through loud and clear during a portion of the games that Olympic head James E. Sullivan called the “Special Olympics.” (Sullivan was also at the head of the marketing division, which was actually called the Department of Exploitation.)

Foreigners and those deemed “racially inferior” would be staging their own amateur version of the games, just to show how bad they were at doing things. Contestants were to come from the human zoos that were already a part of the event, and the whole thing turned into “Anthropology Days.”

It was as horrible as you might expect. Water polo never happened, because the participants thought it was a stupid sport and refused to play. Most of the traditional Olympic events ended badly, because no one bothered to actually tell participants what they were supposed to do, and there were so many different languages spoken that no one would have known how to do it anyway. Even the 100-yard dash was a nightmare. No one understood the starting pistol, and no one knew what to do with the tape, either—many ducked underneath it.

Then there were the more “savage-friendly” games. There was the mud throwing, the tree climbing, and the fighting demonstrations.

In a bizarre display of logic, Sullivan thought that the absolute disaster the events had been meant that his theories were right and that it had been a success. Participants had clearly displayed all of their expected racial inferiority when they hadn’t even been able to break any javelin-throwing records, which he thought would have been an absolute given, with their genetic predisposition to throw spears.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Slate: Olympic-Sized Racism
The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games, edited by Susan Brownell