The St Louis Games of 1904 was by all accounts something of a ‘fiasco’. The organisation was terrible and the presence of the Louisiana Exhibition enticed the organisers into presenting many events as side-shows. George Poage of Milwaukee became the first black American to win an Olympic medal, finishing third in the 400-metre hurdles. An accidental by-product of the shambles was the inclusion of two Zulu tribesmen, who were part of a Boer War exhibit, to run in the marathon. Lentauw and Yamasni became the first black Africans to compete in the Olympics.
Jim Thorpe The 1912 Games in Stockholm produced Jim Thorpe, who was an American Indian. Thorpe was the biggest star of these Games. After coming fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump, he managed to win both the pentathlon and the decathlon. In the latter event, he managed to smash the existing world record in an event he had never entered before. Sadly Thorpe was later stripped of his medals because he had played baseball for money before his Olympic victories.
It was not until 1988 that his medals were returned – posthumously – Thorpe having died of drinking in 1953.
Jesse Owens Similarly, another great black Olympian, Jesse Owens, who returned home to earn his living as a professional athlete, was banned from amateur competition. Owens angered Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, which Hitler thought of as his own. The sight of a black American destroying the pride of the Fatherland was apparently more than Hitler could take.
Owens was not the first black Olympian but the significance of his winning was all the greater because of the setting in which it occurred. His victories were seen as important because they challenged Hitler’s view of Nordic/Arian ethnic supremacy.
Owens also provided a role model for people of his generation and cultural origin, despite the assertions by some black groups that he had simply been a pawn in the hands of a dominant group who were intent on continuing to oppress his own. Cassius Clay In 1960, 18 year-old Cassius Clay burst upon the world, winning the light heavyweight gold medal in boxing. Clay was perhaps different from earlier heroes in that he deliberately used his fame to engage in social and civil rights issued as well as campaigning against the war in Vietnam. At the same games, Wilma Rudolph won the women’s 100 metres and 200 metres and was also part of the US victory in the 4 x 100-metre relay.
More black Olympians In 1964, echoing Clay’s victory four years earlier, Joe Frazier took the gold medal one division high when he won the heavyweight title. Bob Hayes won gold in the men’s 100 metres and Wyomia Tyus did likewise in the women’s even. American Billy Mills, of American Indian extraction, narrowly beat Gammoudi of Morocco in the 10,000 metres. The black Africans arrived in 1960 with the victory of Abebe Bikila in the marathon, a feat he repeated in the Games of 1964. This was continued in 1968 with Kipchoge Keino’s victory in the 1,500 metres and a further win in the 3,000-metre steeplechase in 1972.
The African nations possessed a huge natural talent in distance running, and with their nations’ destinies in their own hands for the first time, began an assault on the world’s distance events, which still continues unabated. Had it not been for the boycotts of the 1970s and 1980s, the record books and medal tables may well have recorded an even greater number of achievements than they did. Hassiba Boulmerka, who won the 1500 metres Olympic gold medal in 1992, caused controversy in her own country by training and performing in shorts, when cultural practice in Algeria expects a woman to keep her legs and arms covered.
The Games as a political stage At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich there was another Black Power protest by two Americans, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, during the medal ceremony they failed to stand to attention. Berlin 1936, despite IOC concerns about the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, the committee was unable to move the 1936 Games away from Berlin. The black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, and was the Games’ undisputed star. This was to the horror of Adolf Hitler who left the stadium when Jesse Owens was presented his medals. Towards the end of the 1960s, athletes began to be aware of their potential to influence issues outside the arena of sport. This was demonstrated in Mexico City in 1968. The two black sprinters, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, had a political agenda and used the Games as their Stage.
Concerned at the continued mistreatments of the black population in the USA, the two athletes used the medal ceremony following their 200-metre final to make a gesture to the world. As they stood on the medal podium listening to the American National anthem they bowed their heads and each raised one gloved hand in the Black Power salute. The Olympic establishment and many outside it never forgave them for it; they were both expelled by the US Olympic Association and immediately sent home. Lee Evans and the 4 x 400-metre squad later repeated this after their victory in that event. As influential role models they, unlike Clay. Had made both athletic and political demonstrations upon the same Olympic stage. Ironically, Clay is still remembered primarily for his athletic pursuits, whereas two raised black-gloved fists giving the Black Power salute appear to be the legacy of Carlos and Smith.
Attempts to define race in biological terms have been futile; races are socially identified categories of people, rather than biologically distinct categories. The concept of race emerged in the eighteenth century and has been associated with confusion and turmoil ever since. The desire to classify all people of the world into distinct categories has been fuelled by different factors at different points of history.
Race logic influenced sport participation patterns and the interpretation of sport performance. White people considered black athletes to be less than human and often characterised them in physical terms, whereas they thought white athletes to be driven by inborn spirit and determination. However, many whites were uncomfortable with the possibility of black physiological superiority, and looked for examples to prove that whites could combine physical strength with their inherent intelligence to outperform black people.
Race logic has been and remains a factor underlying both racial stacking patterns and the absence of blacks in coaching and administrative positions in sports. It has promoted desegregation in those sports that are learned, played and sponsored in context where social, family and gender-mixed relationships are part of the overall participation experience.
Minority groups have seldom been able to use sports to challenge the power and privilege of the dominant group, even though individual minority-group members may experience great personal success in sports. This is probably the reason minority athletes become cultural heroes only when they present themselves as politically neutral “good guys” with understated racial or ethnic identities. Speaking out and challenging race logic or expressions of racism in sports or society can be disastrous for black sports figures. But sports can also be sites for challenging dominant racial ideology and transforming race and ethnic relations. This happens only if people in sports plan strategies to encourage critical awareness of racial ideology.
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