The Infamous White Supremacist Olympic Games

The Final Rehearsal (Part Two)
September 11, 2021
The Final Rehearsal (Part Three)
September 11, 2021

The Infamous White Supremacist Olympic Games

Tswana Olympic Pioneers, Taunyane and Mashiani

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 18th 2020)

White Supremacist Olympic Myths

The 1936 Olympic Games was denounced for racism, and rightly so. Many know about the great Jesse (James Cleveland) Owens demolishing white supremacy by beating the best the Nazis and others had to offer in 1936. But there were 18 black athletes in that US Olympic team and they won several medals too.

They were largely ignored as acknowledging them would have destroyed the white supremacy myth once and for all. On their return to the USA they were treated as second or third class citizens in their own country. So was the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, almost a quarter of a century later. And it hadn’t changed in 1968 either – a fact demonstrated by the iconic photo of Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos on the rostrum. And there were others in 1968 too. The late Lee Evans (see Sam Ramsamy’s tribute to him An Olympic Icon who Deserved Better) stands tall too.

But all of these came much later. The first racist Olympiad was none of these. It came over a century ago, over three decades before the Nazi Games. St Louis’ Olympic Games was even worse than the Nazis’ abuse of the Olympic Games in many ways.

St Louis was not even supposed to host the third Olympiad of the modern era. Chicago had won that right, but St Louis was due to host the Louisiana Purchase Exposition to commemorate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase.[1] The Expo’s organisers wanted the Olympic Games to boost interest in the Exposition, so they cajoled and bullied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) into switching the scheduled venue to St Louis, delivering a segregated Olympic Games.

The South African ‘Team’

An important development in the event in Missouri, passed largely unnoticed. St Louis’ Olympic Games was the first Olympiad to feature African athletes. The Tug-of-War team – the officially entered competitors – were eliminated quickly.

However, others competed by accident. The marathon runners Len Taunyane, Jan Mashiani (both Tswana) and Robert Harris were in St Louis for other reasons – they were part of the shamefully racist Louisiana Purchase Exposition.[2]

The Boycott

Taunyane, Mashiani and Harris were in St Louis, Missouri, for the Exposition. They were persuaded to run the Marathon when the Tswana men were noticed by Olympic Games organisers and asked to compete.

Taunyane and Mashiani were described as savages throughout and they were only recruited when seen at a running event at the Exposition and persuaded to run in the Olympic Games too – the organisers of the Exposition had blackmailed the IOC into moving the Olympic Games from Chicago to St Louis. It needed athletes but treated both them and black spectators appallingly – Apartheid before it had the name.

Importantly, Taunyane and Mashiani were black. It should be noted that the racism of the American organisers of the Exposition was outrageous, as spectators were racially segregated – St Louis’ black community organised a boycott over it and also helped mistreated black African participants in the Exposition to escape from it, securing accommodation and work for them.

So, St Louis’ Olympic Games was appalling. It should be labelled the Apartheid Games. Nevertheless, the Tswana Marathon runners have an important place in African Olympic history. But rather than celebrate their Olympic achievement, South Africa’s government at the time compounded the racism.

The Homecoming

After the Olympic Games, the colonial government of the region – it was under British rule then – objected to any reference of Taunyane and Mashiani having represented South Africa in the Olympic Games.

A year later their participation was denounced by the colonial administration and a decision was taken that no black or non-white athletes would be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games for South Africa again.

But racism was not reserved for foreigners at St Louis’ Olympic Games – the spectators were segregated too and conditions for non-white participants at the related Exposition was disgraceful as were the beliefs of the organisers in St Louis – people who should never have been allowed anywhere near the Olympic Games.

Despite the shocking racism of the Exposition organisers, which spilled over into St Louis’ Olympic Games, Taunyane has secured his place in the history of the Olympic Games. Like it or not, he was the first African to complete an Olympic Games Marathon. Nothing can change that.

[1] One of history’s ironies is the Louisiana Purchase, or rather the commemoration of it. There is no doubt that the purchase of large swathes of territory that actually belonged to several First American tribes facilitated the rapid rise to superpower status of the USA. Spain and France swapped control of the Louisiana Territories (many states of the current USA).

                By 1803 white supremacist Napoléon Bonaparte’s plan to restore slavery in French colonies in the Caribbean, using the Louisiana Territories to feed the newly enslaved black people in those colonies was failing miserably. Napoléon desperately needed funds, so he was willing to sell the territories to fellow white supremacist Thomas Jefferson for $15m – they had previously rejected a bid for commercial hub, New Orleans, alone of $10m.

                Without the sacrifice and bravery of the Haitian revolutionaries, France would have retained possession of the Louisiana Territories. Jefferson took advantage to gain huge swathes of territory, turning the USA from an insignificant nation on the eastern seaboard to a growing behemoth of a nation. The role of the largely black self-liberated former slaves of Haiti in facilitating the rise of the USA was largely ignored – it still is – but Jefferson knew its power. Jefferson soon clamped down on black people opposing slavery. Not only was the black contribution in facilitating the Louisiana Purchase not acknowledged, but it was made illegal to even mention the Haitian Revolution against slavery (The Patriot Act 1807).

[2] The Exposition commemorated the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, facilitated by the Haitian Revolutionaries of 1791-1804 fight against slavery forcing Napoléon Bonaparte to sell the Louisiana Territories to fellow white sup5emacist, Thomas Jefferson. Following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Bonaparte was exiled to St Helena for the rest of his life. Taunyane, and Mashiani had been prisoners of war of the British along with Boer, Harris. Mashiani and Taunyane were runners in the Boer cause. All three shared something with Bonaparte. They too were held prisoners on St Helena.

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