Thursday, July 14, 2016

Olympic weirdness

The upcoming Olympics in Brazil are all over the news at the moment.  Athletes are opting out because of fear of the Zika virus; rumours are rife that the country won’t be ready for the massive event; there are fears of violent protests; and everyone seems to be running out of money.  The whole thing seems to be a circus.

I just read an article about the 1904 Olympics, the third of the modern era, which didn’t just seem to be a circus.  It was one.  The article was by Sean O’Toole in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.  South Africa sent eight athletes to these Olympics but won no medals.  However, South Africans played a bizarre role there.

Chicago won the bid for the 1904 Games, but they actually took place in St. Louis.  One can only imagine the power politics it took to change the venue.  The strongest argument that St. Louis put forward was that the Games should be part of an extravaganza the city was staging to celebrate the centenary of Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  And an extravaganza it was. 

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a summer-long affair that took place in Forest Park (not far from the now notorious Ferguson) on land that had been prepared by levelling Indian burial mounds.  

One of the big attractions were living tableaux of cultures from around the world, including an Inuit village, complete with tents and huskies.  There were Filipinos, Patagonians, Ainu people from Japan, and a Mbuti pygmy man from the Congo, named Ota Benga, who was later exhibited in the Bronx Zoo.

Ota Benga
Historian James Gilbert wrote of this spectacle in his 2009 book, Whose Fair?.  “Native villages were arranged in ascending order of race and cultural progress, capped with a demonstration of American efforts at inducing general progress through a model school.”

South Africa’s main role in St. Louis was not on the athletic field, but in the Exposition.  It provided a re-enactment of two key battles in the recently ended Anglo-Boer War: Colenso (a Boer victory) and Paardeberg (a British victory).  Participants included two real-life Boer generals, Benjamin Viljoen and Piet A Cronje, and demobilised soldiers from both sides.

The re-enactment was huge, with over 600 people taking part.  In fact, it was billed as “the greatest and most realistic military spectacle known in the history of the world”.  

Battle pictures for 3D viewing

Battle pictures for 3D viewing
To publicize the performance there was a street procession through the streets of St. Louis, which had the 600 performers, as well as 50 women in wagons and ox carts, two brass bands, and a contingent of black South Africans in traditional dress.

The spectacle was so successful that at the end of the Exposition, it travelled to Kansas City, Chicago, and Coney Island, New York, where it was met with great acclaim.

“Twice a day,” reported the New York Times in May 1905, “rain or shine, an understudy for [General] de Wet makes his marvellous escape through a cordon of 50 000, more or less, British soldiers, while the multitude cheers, just as it will again cheer a few moments later when fickle fortune has transferred the good fortune of war to the other side ... It is not an unpleasant way, this, to enjoy a conflict; not too exciting; not the least bit dangerous, and very, very noisy.”

Given that these Olympics took place not long after the Civil War, local Blacks in St. Louis were moved to try and improve the lot of their black brothers from Africa who were part of the Boer War spectacle.  So they helped a group of South African Blacks “escape” from the Fair, exemplifying the doctrine of the emancipation proclamation.  Needless to say, those who escaped were soon “recaptured” and the South African Boer War Exhibition Company responded ominously: “The Boer officer states, however, that hereafter the savages will be constantly under heavy armed guard, both night and day.”

Unfortunately, at least to today’s mindset, part of the Exposition was to show the superiority of Whites.  The Department of Anthropology of the Exposition arranged a number of Anthropology Days during which events were held to test “startling rumours and statements that were made in relation to the speed, stamina and strength” of “several savage tribes”.

The St Louis Post-Dispatch reported on this: “Barbarians meet in athletic games; Pygmies in mud fight, pelted each other until one side was put to rout.  Crow Indian won mile run; Negritos captured pole-climbing event and Patagonians beat Syrians in tug-of-war.”

An Ainu man competing in archery
The Fair’s chief anthropologist, William McGee, concluded that there was an “utter lack of athletic ability on the part of the savages”.

There was also an inter-tribal marathon run, in which a South African Tswana man, Len Taunyane, was placed third behind runners from Syria and India.

For the official Olympic marathon, there were so few runners that the organisers invited Taunyane and another Tswana man, Jan Mashiane, to participate.  Taunyane came in ninth, but would probably have done better had he not been chased nearly a mile off course by aggressive dogs.  Mashiane came twelfth.

Jan Mashiane and Len Taunyane
 The marathon was a total fiasco.  The first man to cross the finishing line was a Frederick Lorz.  What actually happened was that he decided to drop out early in the race and hitched a ride in a car to go and pick up his clothes.  The car broke down at mile 19, so he jogged the rest of the way, beating the other competitors easily.  He was subsequently banned from running for a year, then won the Boston Marathon.

The official winner of the marathon was a Brit running for the USA – a Thomas Hicks.  His trainers fueled him with several doses of strychnine sulfate (a common rat poison, which stimulates the nervous system in small doses) mixed with brandy.  He was supported by his trainers when he crossed the finish, but was still considered the winner.  Had it not been for the fact that there were doctors present, he would likely have died.

Hicks being helped across the finishing line
A Cuban postman named Felix Carbajal also ran in the marathon, arriving at the last minute.  He had to run in street clothes that he had cut around the legs to make them look like shorts.  He stopped off in an orchard en route to have a snack on some apples, which turned out to be rotten.  He didn’t feel well, so lay down to have a nap.  Despite being ill, he eventually finished in fourth place.

There was a number of interesting spin-offs from this whole affair.  For example, two of the actors became Hollywood heavyweights: J P McGowan, an Australian-born diamond prospector who fought with the British in South Africa, pioneered the railroad-action genre; and William Boyd, a circus “rough rider”, later achieved fame for his role as cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.

Benjamin Viljoen stayed on in America and founded a Boer colony in Chamberino, New Mexico.  He fought with the rebel forces in the Mexican civil war and was later US consul in Germany.

General Benjamin Viljoen
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, there is no record of what the two Tswana men thought of their time in the United States.  In fact, no one knows what happened to them. What did they think of the boat trip from South Africa to The States?  What went through their minds as they walked the streets of Chicago and New York?  How did the experience change their lives?

So back to the present.  In four weeks, the Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro.  I wonder whether it will be a circus like the 1904 one, or whether the organisers will pull a rabbit from the hat and turn it into a great success.  Here's hoping.


  1. Thank you so very much for this, Stan. When it comes to human fairness and freedoms, I keep saying here that--with occasional setbacks, things are getting better, not worse. (I'll have more to say about that next Monday.) Your expert testimony here is extremely telling and helpful to my case in favor of optimism. Next witness.

  2. I'd like to think things are getting better, though as long as leaders see a way to use race, religion or you name it as a means for dividing a people (note the singular) for the leader's benefit, I'm afraid well just see more "sophisticated" methods of playing the same tune.

  3. It's amazing how much difference perspective makes (and not just here). Looking at society for the last month only, it's easy to think we're descending into absolute chaos, and that all the social progress we've made in hundreds of years is wobbling on the brink ... and then I read something like this and realize maybe this is--though admittedly a wobbly and bad period--not as much "the worst" as it could be. Not that this excuses any of the horrible things that ARE going on, but as Annamaria pointed out, if we could make the partial progress we've made, perhaps we can hope for continuing progress despite these recent issues. I can only hope (because if I don''s far too horrible to contemplate).

    I'll watch the games in Rio, and I desperately hope they go off well, or at least as well as possible.

  4. Every time I read the story about Ota Benga, I am again ashamed of this country's sordid history.
    How can any Black person, wherever they are from, see this, and think of anything but the racism in U.S. history in addition to the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow.
    And now with the far-right supporting a candidate who whips up racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, sexism?
    Where are we?
    I'm worried about Cleveland, just read it's an "open-carry" state, and Trump's "supporters" are coming.

  5. Stan and Michael's "The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu" is on sale on Amazon for 99 cents, and was featured on Bookbub this morning (Wed. July 20), which sent it from #15687 in the Kindle store at 9:30 this morning to #93 at 4:15 this afternoon, from #321 Police Procedurals to #5 over the same time frame. Hopefully this will bring many sales to your other books, too!