When the Olympic Games were reinstated at the end of the nineteenth century, the world stage was dominated by Western imperialism. Europeans controlled 67 per cent of the world in 1878 and 84 per cent in 1914. Western dominance was legitimised ‘scientifically’ with social Darwinist theories, in which ideas about different human races played an important part. When European scientists attempted to construct hierarchies among races, white Caucasian males were always placed on top. They were seen as the pinnacle of evolution – a claim that was supported by various kinds of physical measurements.
In the European sports culture, these claims of supremacy of the European white race were also accepted and held high. Pierre de Coubertin claimed: “If one wishes to extend to natives in colonized countries what we boldly call the benefits of ‘athletic civilization’, they must be made to enter into the broad athletic system with codified regulations and comparative results, which is the necessary basis of that civilization.” In other words: if non-white non-Europeans wanted to be part of the civilised world of sports, they had to behave according to Western standards. Olympic sports, in this sense, were an expression of the imperialistic tendencies of European countries around the beginning of the 20th century.
Such imperialistic characteristics came strongly to the fore at the 1904 Games in the American city of St. Louis, where the organising committee added so-called Anthropology Days to the Olympic programme. In the beginning of modern Olympic history, the Games were often organised together with World Fairs, in which technical and societal progress was celebrated. Colonial powers often imported indigenous peoples from their colonies to exhibit at these World Fairs in order to show the vastness and exotic richness of their empire, but also to demonstrate stages in human progress.
The American organising committee instigated the Anthropology Days – a two day part of the Olympic Games in which indigenous people from all over the world competed with each other in ‘traditional’ sporting activities like javelin throwing and tug-o-war, and anthropologists organised Olympic lectures about the physical culture of the Japanese Ainu, the people from Patagonia, the African Pygmy and the American Indian.
These imperial tendencies of Europe and the Olympic movement were losing ground during the Interbellum. The economical depression of the ‘30s and the devastating effects of both the World Wars severely reduced the credibility of the European claim to superiority. The age of European imperialism gradually ended when the colonial territories were liberated and gained independence during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In the ’60s the human rights movement developed in the US, with Martin Luther King as its figurehead. The Olympic Games were appropriated as a platform for protest against racial prejudice. Especially in track and field events, where non-Caucasian athletes were dominating the medal counts, athletes identified with the black struggle against oppression. Black athletes, historically represented in terms of racial inferiority, now put notions of race to political use in a battle for equality on the Olympic stage. In this the concept of ‘race’ was largely perceived of as skin colour rather than blood or genetic heritage, and was mainly concerned with a visibly non-western outlook and a shared experience of oppression and felt injustice.
Black Power in the Sprint
Since the ‘80s many black athletes have been exceptionally successful at the Olympic Games and nowadays the 100m sprint event is dominated by people from the West-African diaspora: all 40 finalists in the past five editions of the sprint finals are of West African descent. (Entine, 2000: 24) White finalists have become a rarity. Athletes from African descent also dominate long distance running events, but these are primarily Eastern Africans.
This (uneasily) points towards conclusions about a genetic make-up that is primed for the explosive performance that is required for running the 100m at this extreme level. In the media this immediately calls up certain prejudices. Black athletes are described as being ‘naturally’ predisposed to speed and strength, which can imply that their accomplishments are without effort. White athletes however are celebrated for their intention and discipline when competing (Lockyer, 2009).) There is no clear consensus how this ‘black domination’ is to be interpreted, and it remains a touchy subject.
Some argue that the Olympics still displays neo-colonialist tendencies, and that the Games try to conceal oppressive global relationships, for instance when indigenous people are given a minor role in the opening ceremonies, like in Montreal 1976 and in Sydney 2000. (Forsyth en Wamsley, 2005).
Sports facilitate the meeting of different groups of people, but the assimilistic policies of the IOC state that these groups have to comply with Western norms – in terms of the rules of the sports, as well as in the conditions that have to be met by candidate Olympic host cities, and in the image of the Olympic athlete that the IOC puts forward. This image presupposed a combination of characteristics that are traditionally linked to Western ideals. Athletes of African or Asiatic descent are often portrayed in the media in terms of racial stereotypes.
The notion of human race in a biological sense cannot be maintained scientifically. Differences between two opposing ends within one ‘race’ are many times greater than differences between the averages of one ‘race’ and another. Yet, the concept of race continues to play an important part in public discourse. The notion of race may be based on stereotypical representations and false assumptions; it remains an important concept in how we see ourselves and others. Also within the Olympic Games notions of race remain an issue, in spite of the ambitions of the IOC toward non-discrimination and equality.
Entine, Jon (2000), Taboo. Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and why we’re afraid to talk about it, New York: Public Affairs.
Forsyth, Janice en Kevin B. Wamsley (2005), ‘Symbols Without Substance: Aboriginal Peoples and the Illusions of Olympic Ceremonies’, in: Global Olymipcs: Historical and Sociological Studies of the Modern Games, vol. 3, 227-247.