During an Olympics marked by futuristic swimsuits, age-reversing super-pilates, and nationalistic razzle-dazzle on LCD screens of heretofore unimagined scope, it's helpful to remember that Olympic progress can be measured by more than falling records and technological innovation. The Aug. 8 parade of nations featured representatives from 204 countries and territories of varying degrees of sovereignty bearing 204 flags and wearing 204 outfits designed to reflect the essence of the folks back home. The parade is more than a quadrennial check-in on sociopolitical changes (welcome, Montenegro! Serbia and Montenegro, we hardly new ye) and fashion changes (nice to have you back, newsboy cap!), it is perhaps the most powerful symbol of actual progress the Olympics has to offer. That's especially true when you consider that people from several of those parading nations first competed in the Olympics at a bizarre, demeaning borderline-freak show designed to further racial pseudoscience.
The 1904 Olympics weren't supposed to take place in St. Louis. The International Olympic Committee had already awarded the first non-European games to Chicago, but St. Louis complained: It was already hosting the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition (aka the World's Fair) that summer, and there was no way it was going to let some upstart sporting event rain on its parade (or midway, or technological exhibits, or elaborate temporary architecture). Determined to thwart Chicago's plans, the exhibition's organizers threatened to out-Olympics the Olympics. They'd organize a bigger and better athletic competition that would put Chicago's little continental import to shame. Fearing a calamitous setback for his nascent movement, Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin backed down and gave St. Louis the third Olympiad.
It wasn't much of one. The prospect of an arduous trip to a second-tier city in the American Midwest kept almost all of the top European athletes away. Ultimately, fewer than half the events had even one non-American entrant. The Baron himself steered clear of the games, later recalling that he "had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match the mediocrity of the town." Even in the U.S., the Olympics were seen less as an epochal sporting event than as yet another attraction at the World's Fair.
When Judy Garland's fictional family goes to the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis, they say it's the most beautiful place on earth. It was pretty cool. Real visitors saw typical fair fare: industrial exhibits, the world's largest organ, Abe Lincoln's boyhood cabin, newfangled foods like cotton candy and peanut butter and waffle cones, and, of course, a human zoo. Like, well, the Beijing Olympics, World's Fairs of the time were a great way to demonstrate the host nation's various virtues (at best) and presumed cultural superiority (at worst). In 1904, America was in the process of stepping out onto the world stage as an imperialist power. One of the centerpieces of the fair was its Philippine village, featuring live specimens from America's newly acquired territory in a replicated "native habitat" that spread out over 47 acres. Smaller villages were constructed to house Pygmies from Central Africa, American Indians from Mexico, Syrians, Turks, and other "savages"; visitors could gawk at them as they simulated a normal day back home. The display was in the spirit of both turn-of-the-century colonialism and social science. World's Fairs were conceived, in part, as a strollable compendium of the world's knowledge. Its organizers wanted the paying customer to marvel at, say, a new wireless telegraph and a dog-eating member of the Philippines' Igorot Tribe and draw the same conclusion: White Americans are awesome.
The Olympics had their own role to play in this pageant of "progress." A man named James E. Sullivan brought the games to St. Louis. He was a celebrity of an utterly archaic type, nationally famous for sponsoring and officiating athletic competitions. In 1904, he was the head of the fair's Department of Physical Culture. Just as the Department of Exploitation (that's what they called the marketing department) was designed to promote the virtues of the fair's attractions, Sullivan's group was charged with extolling the virtues of American-style athleticism. If the display of "primitive" people from around the world (and even from St. Louis' backyard—there were many Plains Indian tribesmen on exhibit) was meant to show Anglo-America's cultural superiority, Sullivan saw an Olympic games dominated by American achievement as a demonstration of our physical superiority.
Here's where the fair's creepy, early-20th-century ideas about racial superiority reach their icky apogee. Throughout the fair, the so-called primitives participated in physical displays alongside cultural presentations; a visitor to the "Patagonian" display, for instance, might see native Argentines do a traditional dance and also perform some athletic feat. Sullivan subscribed to the view that the white, Anglo-American was at the top of the racial hierarchy in brains and brawn. Here, at his fair, was a chance to prove it once and for all. He talked to William McGee, his counterpart at the fair's Department of Anthropology, and proposed that they combine their efforts. They would hold a "Special Olympics" (Sullivan's phrase) during the plain-old Olympics in which the "savages" would mimic their white counterparts. For Sullivan, it would demonstrate the inherent inferiority of the world's indigenous peoples. For McGee, it would create a body of data that would help him make his mark in the emerging field of anthropology and help him develop his pet bit of quackery: a complete racial hierarchy.
The Special Olympics were harder to pull together than they expected. Despite the fact that the folks in the human zoo were in quasi-captivity, they were paid professionals. With agents and everything. Very few of the "primitives" had any interest in participating in an amateur competition: The Ainu people of Japan might have stooped to climb trees for fair-goers, but that was because they got paid for it. Some, too, seemed to balk because they thought the Olympic sports were ridiculous. Water polo—no joke—was quickly scratched from the program. But eventually, whether due to coercion or curiosity, contestants were secured and the bizarre games within the games began.