Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904

The Anthropology Days was a “scientific experiment” where a variety of men from indigenous populations, including ethnic tribesmen” from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and various American Indian tribes, competed in various events so that anthropologists could see how they compared to the white man.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904

The shameless exhibition was held during the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, where natives from foreign lands participated in various “special Olympic” events.

The event, called “Anthropology Days”, was a depraved attempt by white supremacists to demonstrate the inherent inferiority of the world’s indigenous peoples, and by making them compete against each other and against white athletes in selected events, the objective was to demonstrate white biological superiority over other races.

This event was referred to by local media at the time as the “Savage Olympics.

The man behind “Anthropology Days” was American sports official James Edward Sullivan, the chief organizer of the 1904 Summer Olympics. Sullivan firmly believed in white supremacy, and the Olympics gave him the opportunity to prove that. He persuaded anthropologist William John McGee, who was the head of the Department of Anthropology at the World’s Fair, to lend him a few men from the ethnic displays that he had set up at the fair, promising McGee that competition among the natives would generate a rich body of data that would help McGee make his mark in the field of anthropology.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904
James Edward Sullivan, the Irish-New Yorker responsible for the The Savages Olympics

McGee recruited Natives who were participating in the fair’s ethnic displays to compete in sports events, with the “scientific” goal of measuring the physical prowess of “savages” as compared with “civilized men.”

About a hundred indigenous men took part in various sporting events including baseball throwing, shot put, running, weight lifting, pole climbing, and tugs-of-war. Not surprisingly, the athletes, unprepared and ignorant of the rules of the game they participated in, fared poorly.

On the first morning the tribesmen who obviously didn’t understand any word in English were herded together and given basic instructions on the various sports’ rules in English.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904
440 yard championship swimming event at the 1904 Olympics.

In the shot put event, six men took turns throwing a 56-pound weight, but when the second round came, they refused to participate.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904
C.E. Dvorak of the Chicago Athletic Association Pole Vaulting at the 1904 Olympics. Dvorak won the competition. Image ©

In the sprinting event, the natives didn’t understand the idea of breaking through the finish line. Many stopped short of the ribbon and waited for others to arrive, before crawling together under the ribbon. At the tug-of-war, the natives arrived dressed in their best costumes, and when they learned the sport involved being dragged through the mud, they refused to take part.

Two men from South Africa’s Tswana tribe in town for their country’s World’s Fair exhibit took their places barefoot and became the first Black Africans to compete in the Olympics.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904
1904 Olympic Marathon participants, Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani of the Tswana tribe of South Africa. Jessie Tarbox Beals. Image ©

On the second day ‘the savages . . . 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.’

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904
The winner of the Pole Climbing in 1904 from: Spalding’s official athletic almanac 1905

But Sullivan was disappointed with the ineptitude of the natives at javelin and archery, where he felt they should surely have shone their talents given their cultural dependence on these traditional weapons.

Anthropology Days: The Racist Olympic Event of 1904

As expected, without specific training in these events, and the random nature of their selection, it is not surprising that the ethnic tribesmen performed poorly.

Dr William John McGee, renowned anthropologist and co-organizer of the event, had the wisdom to suggest that the tribesmen might have fared better had they been professionally trained, but James Sullivan disagreed with him.

Sullivan felt that 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.

The whole meeting proves that the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view,’ he stated.

Pierre de Coubertin, the French historian who founded the International Olympic Committee, didn’t make it to St Louis for Anthropology Days. But, he was reported to have said that the games will lose its appeal when black men, red men and yellow men learn to run, jump and throw, and leave the white men behind them”.

In the end, Anthropology Days was a total failure. The games were poorly attended, and the body of data that William McGee was promised never materialized. Even the natives thought of the competitions as ridiculous.


This article was excerpted from an international news agency feed, source or website. Please see end of article for details and relevant links


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