For the next few days of the Olympic Games there will still be buzz about Serena William’s celebratory “Crip walk” dance, or the disparaging comments about gymnast Gabrielle Douglas’ hair–not made by Whites–and a faux pas commercial that showed a monkey on the Olympic rings immediately after Douglas won the Women’s Individual All-Round gold medal.
But a harsher buzz has extended down through history in connection with the Olympics–from the first Black allowed to participate in the Games, until today.
Since the dawn of the ancient Olympics 700 years before the birth of Christ, African athletes have been studied by spectators in the same way, and race has always played a part in the Olympic Games.
When the first African charioteer secured his chest plate while lining up his rig with those of the Romans and Greeks, he was considered an anomaly. Spectators contemplated how he had arrived at such an auspicious position, and wondered who had mentored him?
Historical records from Pausanias, a second-century Greek traveler and geographer, described the early Olympics Games firsthand, recording what he observed. Those observations are considered very precise accounts and a crucial link between classical literature and modern archeology.
Pausanias’ entries were so reliable that they were instrumental in the discovery of Olympia, the place where the Games were born, according to Professor Christian Habicht of the University of Berlin, who states in his book, “Pausanias and the Evidence of Inscriptions,” that the recordings allowed English antiquarian Richard Chandler to find the actual site of those first games in 1776.
Roughly a hundred years later–between 1875-1881–the site was fully excavated during a Prussian expedition under the direction of Ernst Curtis using Pausanias’ log entries.
Curtis’ excavations indicate the ancient Olympics began around 776 B.C. in Olympia, Greece. The Games were usually held every four years, which is considered an Olympiad. The ancient Games continued to be celebrated after Greece came under Roman rule following the Battle of Corinth.
Pausanias described the site of the original Games as a walled sacred area that included sporting venues that contained a running track and a horse track. When Greece became a part of the Roman Empire, the Romans allowed slaves to participate in the Games. By then, Olympia had expanded. There were hotels for the visitors and baths for the athletes. Like the modern-day Olympic village, the site of Olympia was never permanently occupied.
Professor Habicht describes the Greeks as believing sport to be a very honorable occupation. His book portrays good athletes as being respected, and noted that many had an important position in the community.
“Sport was in Greece above all a domain of the free, and slaves could barely participate,” according to the abstract “Ancient Olympics” by Sofie Remijsen.
When African slaves competed, their pay for participation was not the large amounts given citizens of Greece and Rome. An inscription on the “Statuette of an auriga (charioteer)” from Misthia in present-day Turkey states that slave victors had to give one-fourth of their prize money to the other participants. In this way, the notion that masters would train their slaves as athletes to profit from the prize money could be averted.
Typically, slaves could only be present at the Games as members of the cleaning staff. This prevented them from developing their talents and technique. Still, it is hard to deny that some of the winning chariots at those early Games were driven by African slaves, since such depictions are recorded in ancient Greek vase artwork. However, since the owner of the chariot and horse was the victor and the charioteer unimportant in the opinion of the Greeks, we know very little about African-Greek charioteers.
Like those African charioteers, the first Black athlete to compete at the modern Olympics must have also appeared as an anomaly to spectators.
Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, was the first person of African descent to participate as a member of the French team in the 1900 Games. The first Black athlete to win a gold medal was African American John Taylor, who was part of the United States’ 400-meter-relay team in 1908.
Later, William DeHart Hubbard became the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event–the running long jump at the 1924 Paris Summer Games.
African American Alice Marie Coachman became the first Black female to win a Olympic gold medal when she competed in the high jump at the 1948 Olympics.
Sixteen years earlier, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett qualified in track and field for the 1932 Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles, but were not allowed to participate because of their race. By the following Olympiad, the U.S. had dropped the color barrier and allowed to Blacks to participate in the 1936 Berlin games. Stokes and Pickett became the first African American women to represent their country in the sporting competition.
Jesse Owens has become a name synonymous with the 1936 Games as the African American who upset Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy. Owens did it not once, but four times, winning gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4-x-100-meter relay. But his victory presents some odd Black-Nazi scenarios.
Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was chosen to record the 1936 Olympics based on her propaganda skills. She had been afforded great latitude in trying special techniques, including digging pits next to the pole vault, for instance, to get better camera angles. Expected was a film that would once again show the glory of Germany since Riefenstahl was Hitler’s personal filmmaker and had produced other award-winning propaganda films for the Nazis.
Riefenstahl insisted on and got an agreement from Hitler to have unlimited freedom in making the film; and one example of how she exercised that freedom was her ability to resist Joseph Goebbels’ (then the Third Reich Minister of Propaganda) advice to remove or diminish the emphasis on Owens. In fact, she managed to give Owens a considerable amount of screen time, although his strong presence was certainly not in line with the orthodox pro-Aryan Nazi position and Goebbels.
The resulting two-part film, documenting the 1936 games, Olympische Spiele (“Olympia”), won both acclaim for its technical and artistic merit, and criticism for its “Nazi aesthetic,” consisting of large swastikas, marching troops and plenty of uniforms. Some claim that the film was financed by the Nazis, but Riefenstahl denied this connection.
After the war, Riefenstahl, who refused orders to remove Jesse Owens from her documentary, moved to Africa. Riefenstahl’s work in Africa has been received with mixed feelings. Many believed she attempted to re-create herself publicly by living with the people her former leader considered subhuman.
In Africa, she spent time with the Nuba people of southern Sudan. Riefenstahl claimed she found opportunities to explore visually the beauty of the human body and appeared to be consumed with photographing male bodies. Her book, “Die Nuba,” published by Taschen Publishing Co., has Riefenstahl surrounded by nude Nuba men. The majority of these photographs were published in 1973. Ethnographers and others criticized these photos of naked men and women, many with faces painted in abstract patterns and some depicted fighting.
The book has remained somewhat popular as a paean to the human form, though some would call it quintessential fascistic imagery. In 1976, she followed up with another book, “The People of Kau,” in Sudan.
The running shoes worn by Owens were given to him by one of the owners of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory, a company owned by Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, two German brothers who would later become well-known Nazis. The gift was one of the first and most important marketing ploys in sports history, one that helped catapult the company to worldwide success in athletic apparel.
Letters from around the globe came into the company requesting shoes. Soon Dassler would begin selling 200,000 pairs of running shoes a year. However, the brothers’ relationship with one another wouldn’t last. During a World War II bombing raid over Germany, a bitter split developed between the brothers and they would break up Dassler into separate companies. Rudolf called his new company Puma. Adolf, or Adi, as he was nicknamed, would then call his company Adidas.
Puma would later become known for furnishing running shoes to African Americans in Harlem and other inner cities in the 1960s. And it was Pumas that African American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore when they won first- and third-place medals in the 200-meter race during the 1968 Mexico Games. Smith’s Pumas were beside him as he stood barefoot on the stand, where they raised their black-gloved fists in protest, along with bronze-medal winner Carlos. They also wore black scarves to represent slaves thrown overboard in the Atlantic Ocean during Middle Passage.
“We had to make sure we were on the medal stand,” said Carlos. “So in the race I was leading for most of the race and I constantly had to look over my left should to make sure Tommie was coming,” said Carlos, who would eventually finish third.
“When you run track you don’t swivel your head, and I had to constantly swivel my head to make sure that after the race we both were on the stand. I didn’t go there for ultimate speed and the medal. I went there for the statement.”
The second place finisher, Peter Norman of Australia, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of Smith and Carlos.
In response to the protest, IOC President Avery Brundage told the United States Olympic Committee to either send the two athletes home or withdraw the U.S. track and field team. The USOC opted for the former and sent Smith and Carlos home.
A Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics had first been proposed by California sociologist Harry Edwards a year earlier. He had accused Brundage of being “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality.” Smith and Carlos had tried to involve other African American Olympians in their protest, but many declined, according to Carlos, saying they had trained all their lives for their Olympics moment and did not want to participate in a boycott. Others said they had made promises to their families that they would win a medal and wanted to continue without controversy.
“Our game was to try to make them understand that, man, you have 15 minutes in the sun. We’re trying to do something that will change society for your kids and your grandkids, something that will be everlasting,” Carlos recounted in a phone interview recently.
Among the demands of the proposed boycott were:
* Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Games because they were apartheid countries
* Hire more African American coaches
* Fire Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee, who was perceived as racist and anti-Semitic
* Restore Muhammad Ali’s boxing title that had been stripped due to his opposition to the Vietnam War
Carlos’ view of the 1968 Olympics are captured in his book, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World.”
Brundage, no newcomer to controversy, had been head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936 and had resisted calls by many Americans to boycott the Games in Germany. And he had steadfastly refused to support the return of Native American Jim Thorpe’s medals, which had been stripped from him after the 1912 Games. Brundage himself had participated in that race.
Thorpe’s medal were taken because he had played baseball with a quasi-professional team.
Because of what was perceived as Brundage’s racist inclinations, both Smith and Carlos wore black gloves to the medal stand to prevent skin contact with Brundage during the handshake.
The Olympic Games have been used as a platform to promote political ideologies almost from their inception.
Nazi Germany wished to portray the National Socialist Party as benevolent and peace-loving when they hosted the 1936 Games, but they used the event to display Aryan superiority.
Germany was the most successful nation at the Games in terms of medal count, which did much to support their allegations of Aryan supremacy.
But notable victories by Jesse Owens spoiled that perception.