Racism and sport, a sorry story of modern times


Mediapart's revelations about how officials at the French Football Federation planned to introduce an ethnic quota at its national training academies led to a huge controversy in France and abroad, the public excuses of those involved in the plan and led to two official enquiries. Above all, it sparked a wider debate about prejudice and discrimination in sport which, on an international level, only truly embraced multi-racialism in the final decade of the 20th century. Antoine Perraud charts how theories of racial supremacy have long poisoned sport which, he argues here, has become a supplementary vehicle for racist ideologies, beginning with those of the founder of the modern Olympic games, Pierre de Coubertin.

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Mediapart's revelations about how officials at the French Football Federation planned to introduce an ethnic quota at its national training academies led to a huge controversy in France and abroad, the public excuses of those involved in the plan and led to two official enquiries. Above all, it sparked a wider debate about prejudice and discrimination in sport which, on an international level, only truly embraced multi-racialism in the final decade of the 20th century. Antoine Perraud charts here how theories of racial supremacy have long poisoned sporting activity across the world.


In modern times sport has often been nothing more than an alternative vehicle for racist political ideologies. Such ideas permeated the modern Olympic movement right from the start and were given voice by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, its founder and the organiser of the Athens Olympic Games in 1896.

Coubertin had absorbed the racial theories expounded by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, as this statement from him illustrates: "The races are of different value and all others should pledge allegiance to the white race, which is of a superior essence."

Coubertin described himself as a "fanatical colonialist" and, in line with this, opined that "the theory of equal rights for all human races leads to a political line contrary to any colonial progress."

The racist organisers of the third modern Olympics held in Saint Louis in 1904 set up "Anthropology Days" involving competitions between Pygmies, Eskimos, Apaches - even Geronimo was exhibited at the age of 75 - native Patagonians, Philippine Negritos, Ainu from Japan, Zulus from Southern Africa and Balubas from Central Africa.

The organisers judged their performances to be mediocre. Pygmies were decreed to be unsuitable for any physical exercise except for mud throwing - one of the events organised at the Saint Louis Olympics for so-called "primitives".

Coubertin's racist ideology emerges clearly in his poem, "Ode to Sport", which he wrote for the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912: "O Sport, you are Fecundity! You strive directly and nobly towards perfection of the race, destroying unhealthy seed and correcting the flaws which threaten its essential purity."

Coubertin was revolted by what he saw as the ethnic laxity of the Olympic Games despite his remonstrations, and was upset by the admission of women at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam - he is on record as saying that "the role of women should be above all to crown the victors".

As soon as Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party came to power in Germany in 1933, he contacted the German Olympic Committee, which shared his obsession with purity.

As a gauge of prevailing ideology, this comment was published in a Nazi newspaper, The Völkischer Beobachter (The People's Observer) in 1932: "Unfortunately we can see today that free men must often compete with black slaves, Negroes, for the trophy. This is a shameful, unparalleled degradation of the Olympic spirit, and the Ancient Greeks would surely turn in their graves if they knew what modern men have made of their sacred national games."

Hitler tried in vain to put Coubertin forward as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for services rendered at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The Weimar Republic had been chosen to organise these games in 1931, but five years later the Nazi regime basked in Olympic glory as a result.

Only one man dared to speak out against what he called this "sordid exploitation of the Games" and was sanctioned for his pains. Ernest Lee Jahncke, an American and a staunch Republican, became the only person ever to be expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1936. He was succeeded by Avery Brundage, a pro-Nazi Yankee, who would chair the Committee from 1952 to 1972.

The ingrained racism of Americans blinded them to everything except the celebrations in Berlin in August 1936. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his eye on appeasing the deep South to help him be re-elected in 1937, and he refused to receive Jesse Owens, the black athlete, whose victories directly contradicted the Third Reich's racist theories.

There was another, lesser-known example of this Olympic racism in 1936. Son Ki-chong of Korea won the marathon. Japan, which had colonised the Korean peninsula in 1910 and treated its people as sub-human, had changed his name to Son Kitei to make him sound Japanese.

Standing at the top of the podium, Son Ki-chong woefully bent his head to show he was under their yoke, and tried to hide the Japanese insignia on his shirt. He kept repeating to journalists who interviewed him that he was Korean, but they were not interested in this fact.








Leni Riefenstahl, who made her name with her propaganda film of the Nazis' Nuremburg Congress in 1934, Triumph of the Will, took two years to assemble Olympia (video below), based on footage taken at the 1936 Olympics and dedicated to Pierre de Coubertin.


Olympia : les dieux du stade © ruffinattojmonnet

After the war, Leni Riefensthal, the German film maker who was a friend of Hitler, took her obsession with aesthetics to the point where she inverted her theories of racial inferiority. In a warped paradox criticised by Susan Sontag, she photographed the Nuba tribe in Sudan (pictures below) and presented them in books published in the mid-1970s as superior and unbeatable humans, even SS substitutes.








The oeuvre she lovingly crafted in the places she selected simply reduces black skin to nothing but a receptacle for her fantasies. Leni Riefenstahl continued to see things in outrageously racial terms, seeking out animal qualities on the pretext of praising physical bodies. Her incredible "Negrophilia" is merely an inversion of race hate and concurs with current counter-prejudices on the supposed genetic superiority of black athletes.

Hitler's former muse may have abandoned the terrain of official Nazi racism with her ideas of an ebony paradise, but South Africa readily took it up again from 1948, when Afrikaner nationalists took power and brought in racial segregation.

Under apartheid sport was governed by pernickety and obsessional laws. Under "separate development" of the races, whites and non-whites had to organise sporting activities separately and were not allowed to belong to the same clubs.

Spectators were also separated on racial grounds. Interracial competitions were seen as unthinkable at the highest levels. Ahead of the 1968 Olympics, Prime Minister John Vorster sent an unequivocal message. He would reply to anyone who demanded that South Africa abandon the principle of sport being practiced separately, he said, that even though he was convinced of the importance of sporting relationships, he was "not ready to pay that price".

The South African government was just as intransigent when foreign teams visited its soil. In 1959, Brazilian footballers refused to play when they learned that two of their black players would not be allowed onto the pitch. In 1967, New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team cancelled their tour when Pretoria refused to allow them to bring two Maori players.

In 1965 Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, said that he expected foreigners to respect South African customs and adapt to them when they came to the country, just as South Africans would respect other customs abroad.

South Africa was excluded from the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 but for the Mexico Games in 1968, the International Olympic Committee argued that there had been notable progress and concessions. It approved the country's reintegration for the Mexico Games in 1968, but provoked an international outcry and had to do an about-turn.

French rugby invariably flew to South Africa's aid. The French national team replaced the All-Blacks in 1967, even though French players and officials had seen apartheid in operation during its tours there in 1958 and 1964. This brought South Africa's out of its sporting isolation, and other French visits would follow in 1971, 1975 and 1980.

The president of the French Rugby Federation, Albert Ferrasse, can claim that in return for his collaboration, he was able to obtain permission for Roger Bourgarel, the team's wing three quarters who hailed from Toulouse but was of West Indian origin - he was nicknamed "the black arrow" in the French press - to be included in the team for the 1971 tour.

This mania for nicknames, this linguistic labelling to highlight skin colour that stuck onto anyone who is perceived as exotic, gets a firm retort in this poem by Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor, 'For My White Brother':

"Dear white brother,

When I was born, I was black,

When I grew up, I was black,

When I am in the sun, I am black,

When I am sick, I am black,

When I die, I will be black.

Whereas you, white man,

When you were born, you were pink,

When you grew up, you were white,

When you are in the sun, you are red,

When you are cold, you are blue,

When you are afraid, you are green,

When you are sick, you are yellow,

When you die, you will be grey.

So, of the two of us,

Who is the coloured man?"

On October 17, 1968 came a first sign that African Americans refused to be merely tolerated in a way that reduced them to the single dimension in which they existed for their "masters". At the Mexico Games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals respectively in the Olympic 200m, took over the podium and gave the Black Power salute, their black-gloved fists raised in a universal sign of rebellion.

The president of the International Olympic Committee, the very same Avery Brundage who had been pro-Nazi in 1936, had them banned for life from the Olympics and demanded that they be suspended from the American team. But the message had got through. Blacks went from being on the defensive to a position of challenging the status quo. They freed themselves from their status as second-class athletes for a country which had replaced slavery with segregation.

Their protest illustrates what Jean-Paul Sartrewas referring to in his controversial preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961: "[...] this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself."

Only in the last decade of the 20th century, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa and the noble vision and actions of Nelson Mandela, did sport seem to embrace the spirit of the five interlinked rings of the modern Olympic symbol, a full century after Coubertin had revived the Olympic ideal. Only a few racist supporters persist and they are unanimously seen as backward.

In France this change was exemplified by the team that won the 1998 soccer World Cup. The French politician and writer Alain Peyrefitte wrote in Le Figaro at the time: "France is multiracial and it will remain so. [Coach Aimé] Jacquet is from Forez [a former province of France in the Massif Central], Zidane is from Kabyle [a region of Algeria], Thuram is from Guadeloupe, Barthez is from the Pyrenees, Desailly is African [...] What is the point of relating the lineage of all these marvellous champions? What they have given us is French pride, a gift as a model for the universe."

But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, sport was caught up in the upheavals and impulsions that shook the world, when questions of identity became more rigid once more. The North became convinced that it was sheltering infiltrators from the South in its bosom. The wealthy nations each sought out their own fifth column. The old racist reflexes returned in the confusion and regression that followed.

Given this recent regression, various football coaches and other officials might like to consider what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Race and History (1952), a century after Gobineau's infamous essay.

"By refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most "savage" or "barbarous" of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism."


English version: Sue Landau

(Editing by Graham Tearse)

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