Remembering the Anthropology Days at the 1904 Olympics.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 21 2008 6:53 AM

Olympic-Sized Racism

Remembering the 1904 games, where Indians, Pygmies, and other "savages" faced off in the interest of science.

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"Anthropology Days," as the event was called, took place on Aug. 12 and 13, 1904. The first day featured European-style competitions: the shot put, the high jump, the long jump, the mile, and others. It went poorly—the events had been pulled together very quickly, and there was no time to teach the participants. One strength event—throwing a 56-pound weight—apparently enticed only three competitors, all three of whom refused to try a second round of throws. The high jump was confounding. Even the 100-yard dash was problematic. With so many languages spoken, the starting gun concept was understandably lost on many of the participants. So, too, was the idea of breaking through the finish line: Many would stop short or run below the tape.

The second day featured what the organizers saw as more "savage-friendly" exhibitions: a tree-climbing contest, archery, fighting demonstrations, a Mohawk vs. Seneca lacrosse match, and mud throwing. But even these supposedly more culturally appropriate games didn't work out the way they'd hoped. Thinking that spear-throwing peoples would fare well, Sullivan and McGee were shocked to see that most participants had trouble with the javelin.

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The Anthropology Days were seen as a near-total failure. With very little notice, the Department of Exploitation wasn't able to promote it; very few people were there to watch. William McGee's body of data never emerged, with the events so haphazard and poorly designed as to prove statistically insignificant (if we pretend to accept for the moment that such statistics could ever be significant).

For James E. Sullivan, however, the games were at least partially successful. They demonstrated that these savages couldn't even play a proper game of tennis, after all. Sullivan considered the natives' failure to beat the Olympic record for the javelin a sure sign of racial inferiority rather than an aversion to an apparatus never before encountered.

The Anthropology Days experiment was, thankfully, a one-shot deal as an Olympic event. McGee did go on to repeat the experiment that fall, however, this time giving the participants (mostly Native Americans) time to learn and practice the games. Thirty thousand spectators packed the bleachers. Taken together, McGee wrote, the two events proved that the course of human events marched on, inexorably toward the civilized, white-American ideal. His quackery had "proved" the physical inferiority of "primitive" peoples.

Despite the best efforts of James E. Sullivan, the first Olympics on U.S. soil weren't a total embarrassment. George Poage became the first African-American to win a medal, taking home the bronze in the 400-meter hurdles. Frank Pierce became the first American Indian Olympian, running in the marathon and setting the stage for Jim Thorpe to dominate the 1912 games, Michael Phelps-style. And two Zulus, working the fair as part of a big Boer War exhibit, asked whether they could run the marathon and wound up placing fifth and 12th. But Sullivan could take heart: a white American won.

For Nate DiMeo's roundup of the scholarship that's been done on the 1904 Olympics and Anthropology Days, click here.

Nate DiMeo is a journalist in Los Angeles.