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The Olympics’ “civilising” legacy: St Louis to Beijing

Susan Brownell
23 May 2008

The third modern Olympic games were held in StLouis in 1904 alongside the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (world's fair). Chinadid not take part in the sports (it would send its first Olympic athlete to the1932 Los Angeles games), but the Qing dynasty did send its first-ever officialdelegation to an international exposition. It was motivated to do so byconcerns about the negative national image of China promoted by the unofficialexhibits at previous fairs, such as the "opium-den" exhibit at the 1893 world'sColumbian exposition in Chicago. The 1904 Olympics were apparently also the first Olympics to bereported by the press in China.Susan Brownell is professor in the department of anthropology, Universityof Missouri. In 2007-08 she is on sabbatical leave as a Fulbright Scholar atthe Beijing Sport University. She is the author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People'sRepublic (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean toChina (Rowman &Littlefield, 2008)

This essay was originally posted on TheChina Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read (3 May 2008); a revised and expanded version appeared in Japan Focus (16 May 2008)

The world's fair was America's coming-out party as a worldpower. The United States had just acquired the former Spanish colonies of thePhilippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as aresult of the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the subsequentPhilippines-American war (see Warren Zimmermann, FirstGreat Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country aWorld Power [Farrar, Straus& Giroux, 2004]). At the fair, it presented itself as an expanding power, with anextremely large display devoted to thePhilippines. Another large section of the exposition grounds was devoted todisplays intended to demonstrate that the government was succeeding in "civilising"American Indians.

That the Old World was not completely happyabout the emerging New World is evident in the European criticism ofthe Olympic games. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Pierre de Coubertin said that awarding the games to St Louishad been a "misfortune" and recalled: "So the St Louis Gameswere completely lacking in attraction. Personally, I had no wish to attendthem. [...] I had a sort of presentiment that the Olympiad would match themediocrity of the town." He complained about "utilitarian America". He also labelled as"embarrassing" the "anthropology days", in which natives who had beenbrought to the fair for the ethnic displays competed in some track and fieldevents and pole-climbing, and compared their performances unfavourably withthose of the "civilised" men who took part in the Olympic games.

While the Americans themselves were generallysatisfied with the Olympic games, even to this day European historians considerthe St Louis games and the associated anthropology days to be one ofthe low points of Olympic history (see Susan Brownell, ed., The1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race and American Imperialism [University of Nebraska Press, December2008].

It is often said that the 1906 IntermediateOlympic Games in Athens "saved" the Olympics. The historian MarkDyreson has observed that after St Louis it became clear that American notionsof what purposes Olympic sport should serve differed quite dramatically fromthe notions of the European nations that made up the core of the IOC'sleadership (see Mark Dyreson, Makingthe American Team: Sport, Culture and the Olympic Experience [University of Illinois Press, 1998]. Thisconflict would continue for the rest of the 20th century.

China'striple-jumpAlso in openDemocracyon China's Olympics, and Tibetan tensions:

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China'spolitics" (22 August 2007)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's politicaltightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity:China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west:empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Taiwan andChina: an electoral prelude" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: aGuangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Ramin Jahanbegloo, "Olympics of shame" (9 April 2008)

Wang Lixiong, "China and Tibet: the true path" (15 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Chinese intellectuals and Tibet:a letter" (15 April 2008)

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PRinto the PRC" (18 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Tibet scholars and China: aletter" (22 April 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China's Olympics: after thestorm" (6 May 2008)

Chang Ping, "Tibet: looking for the truth" (8 May 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: frommonochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

The first published calls for China to hostthe Olympic games appeared in two Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA)publications: a 1908 essay in TientsinYoung Men, and an item in the report to the YMCA's international committeeby CH Robertson, the director of the Tianjin [Tientsin] YMCA. Robertson statedthat since 1907 a campaign had been carried on to inspire patriotism in China by asking three questions:

1 When will China be able to send a winningathlete to the Olympic contests?

2 When will China be able to send a winningteam to the Olympic contests?

3. When will China be able to invite all theworld to come to Peking (Beijing) for an international Olympiccontest, alternating with those at Athens?

These three questions are now famous in Chinabecause it has taken almost exactly one hundred years for China torealise this Olympic dream (see Beijing'sGames: What the Olympics Mean to China [Rowman & Littlefield, 2008]).

The St Louis model

Olympic sports were introduced into China inthe late 19th century by the YMCA and missionary-run schools and colleges. TheYMCA continued to play a major role in China's sport system and its influencewas still being felt until recently since many sports leaders wereYMCA-trained. The last of these leaders passed away only in recent years. TheIOC co-opted the first Chinese member in 1922; he was CT Wang, who was active inthe YMCA and a Yale University graduate. The third IOC member in China, Dong Shouyi (Tung Shou-yi) - co-opted in 1947 - attendedSpringfield College, the YMCA's college in Massachusetts.

China imitated the St Louis model. In 1910 the Nanyang Industrial Exposition inNanjing was China's first attempt at an international exposition on Chinesesoil. Held in conjunction was a sporting event organised by the YMCA that latercame to be known as the first national athletic games. The American YMCA usedthe Philippines as a launching-point to spread sports throughout east Asia, andin 1913 the first Far Eastern Olympiad was held in Manila. They were sosuccessful that the IOC was worried that they might become a rival to theOlympic games - so it requested that the term "Olympiad" be removed,and they were thereafter called the Far Eastern Championships. They were thefirst regional games in the world and at various times included athletes fromthe Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Hong Kong.

In August 2008, 104 years after the US hosteda world's fair and an Olympic games as its coming-out party, China will hostthe Olympic games on 8-24 August 2008 in Beijing as its own coming-out party(and in 2010, Shanghai will host the World Expo). What will be on display in Beijing in 2008 will reveal the model for promoting anational image to the world that has evolved over a century in China. TheOlympic slogan "One World, One Dream" expresses this ideal: we areall part of one world, and we share the dream of prosperity and strength.

As the US did over a century ago, China willtry to display the success of its civilising mission among its frontierminorities. It will try to display its wealth through monumental architectureand exhibitions that display its economic prowess. In 1904, train stations wereone of the major ways of displaying wealth - the St Louis Union Station,completed in 1902, was one of the largest and most opulent train stations inthe world. In 2008, sports stadiums have replaced train stations, and Chinawill have its Bird's Nest Stadium.

The St Louis world's fair was the biggest of all time, just as theBeijing games may well be the biggest Olympics of all time. When a superpowerholds a coming-out party, it is a hard act to follow.

Japan's coming-outparty

The most relevant historical lesson from 1904is that existing powers do not necessarily welcome newcomers with open arms. Ashappened to the US, there are suggestions that Chinese views about the purposesof Olympic sport conflict with the "correct" (i.e., dominant) views.It may happen that future Olympic histories written by westerners will recordthat the Beijing games were a low point in Olympic history, and that London in 2012 "saved" the games.

Japan was the first east Asian nation tocelebrate its emergence with an Olympic games. The first IOC member in Japan, Kano Jigoro,was co-opted in 1909. The inventor of judo (the first non-western sport to beincluded on the Olympic programme), Kano established a school for Chinesestudents that over thirteen years trained 7,192 Chinese students, includingseveral who became influential reform-minded intellectuals. Japan's coming-outparty was originally scheduled for 1940, when Tokyo was due to host the Olympic games.

Sandra Collins describes the bid for thosegames as so controversial that the IOC had to postpone its vote on them for oneyear until 1936; IOC chairman Henri Baillet-Latour had complained that "outside politicaldisturbances created this impossible situation which ignored the rules andtraditions of the IOC...". Collins observes that the bidcampaign "disrupted the IOC's established political culture and revealedthe extent to which the IOC leadership considered Japan an exotic outsider tothe IOC community" (see Sandra Collins, "Tokyo 1940:Non-Celebres", in Andreas Niehaus & Max Seinsch (eds.), Olympic Japan: Ideals andRealities of (Inter)nationalism[Ergon Verlag, 2007]).

The two years before Japan rescinded hostingrights in 1938 were surrounded by a great deal of international controversy.Inside Japan, there were debates about the degree to which the games should beoriented toward nationalistic aggrandisement or international appeasement.Eventually, the 1940 games were cancelled because of the war.

By contrast, the Olympic games that actuallytook place in Tokyo in 1964 generally succeed in creating a new image ofJapan as an accepted member of the international community. However, by thistime, Japan was a nation that had been defeated in war, with US military baseson its national territory. Japan has also hosted two winter Olympic games (Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998) that did not incite a great deal ofcontroversy over its place in global politics.

South Korea's coming-out party at the Olympicgames in Seoul in 1988 was likewise generally successful. However, itis worth reflecting upon the fact that the Beijing Olympic games will be thefirst Olympics to be staged by an Asian nation that is not host to US militarybases.

The paths of"modernisation"


A link to this 104-year history is anintellectual history that is relevant to the furore that swirls around Tibet,even more intense since the riots and demonstrations there in March 2008 andthose in later weeks surrounding the Olympic torch-relay. These days, if itseems that Chinese ideas about their national image contain some throwbacks toa century ago, there is probably good reason. A widespread understanding ofTibet, which is shared even by many Chinese intellectuals, is that when thecentral government moved in to reform its social system in the 1950s, it was inthe "agricultural slave society" stage (a concept drawn from Lewis Henry Morgan's "stages" of civilisational progress, whichwere borrowed by Karl Marx). Because this conceptual framework assumes thatcivilisational progress is a good thing, many Chinese people cannot understandwhy the west criticises the central government for leading the Tibetans towardhigher civilisational stages - such as capitalism.

The current controversy over Tibet is a goodtime for western intellectuals to reflect on their own role in the situation.The ideas of social evolution and civilisational progress that entered China atthe turn of the last century were powerful ideas. They formed a great symbolicsystem that shaped world history, in the west as well as in China.

After the second world war there was abacklash against this schema in the west because of the extremes to which it hadbeen taken by the Nazis. But among social scientists in the 1950s it began tobe revised into a simplistic, unilinear "modernisation theory" that stillpersists in some quarters today. In the 1960s, the struggle to repudiateevolutionary schemas became heated in my own discipline of anthropology. But bythis time, Chinese intellectuals were under attack, the social sciences werebeing dismantled, and the exchange of ideas with the west was being cut off -not to be restored until the late 1970s.

The result of this linkage between politicsand ideas was that while modernisation theory was able to gain a foothold inChina, the anti-evolution trend that succeeded it in the west bypassed thecountry. Indeed, the "neo-Confucian revival" that was sparked in eastAsia in the 1970s strengthenedmodernisation theory because it tried only to describe the ways in which the Confucian tradition could facilitatemodernisation, and did not attempt to view the basic schema critically, stillless repudiate it wholesale.

Global game,western rules

The outcome of these intellectual trends inAmerican anthropology in the 1970s was the reshaping of the 19th-century schemaof "progress" from "savage to barbarian to civilised" intothe "levels of social complexity" of "band, tribe, chiefdom,state". Even after forty years, conflicts over evolutionary schemascontinue to split the discipline, and there is a substantial faction ofrelativists opposed to social or sociobiological evolutionary schemas in anyshape or form.

Indeed, it must be asked whether such schemasare now more dominant in popular culture than in academia. The modern Olympicgames emerged out of this same late 19th-century intellectual milieu andreflect one of its contemporary incarnations. Today, non-Greeks are attached totheir connection with fictionalised ancient Greeks because they believe theyare carrying on their civilisation in the march of progress.

Because they are the overarching symbolicsystems that still give meaning to the times in which we live, these fictionscannot easily be dismantled - in China or elsewhere. To better understand oneof the underpinnings of the Tibetan ethnic conflict, western intellectualsshould be more reflective about their own intellectual history, above all thefate of American Indian civilisations. And perhaps we need to be more assertiveabout communicating to our Chinese colleagues the history of our post-1945struggles with these theories (see Nils Gilman, Mandarinsof the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004]).

In the global competition to establish an image as a world power, Chinais still trying to win by playing more or less according to the rules itlearned in the early 20th century. State leaders and citizens alike are socommitted to a rather simple notion of evolutionary progress based on economicmodernisation that they are ill-prepared to understand the nuances that havebeen introduced in the west. Meantime, the west has changed the rules of thegame by adding new factors such as human rights. To the degree that westernideas about what constitutes a prosperous, strong, and moral nation dominate inglobal politics and public opinion, the west controls the rules of the game. Aslong as it controls the rules it can also keep changing them to ensure thatnewcomers never win.

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