Colonialism and the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games have been criticized as upholding (and in some cases increasing) the colonial policies and practices of some host nations and cities either in the name of the Olympics by associated parties or directly by official Olympic bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee, host organizing committees and official sponsors.

Critics have argued that the Olympics have engaged in or caused: erroneous anthropological and colonial knowledge production; erasure; commodification[1] and appropriation of indigenous ceremonies and symbolism; theft and inappropriate display of indigenous objects; further encroachment on and support of the theft of indigenous lands; and neglect and/or intensification of poor social conditions for indigenous peoples. Such practices have been observed at: the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, MO; the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Quebec; the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta; and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC.

Anthropology at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, MO

The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, MO were held in conjunction with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the St. Louis World's Fair), and were the first modern Olympic Games to be held in North America.[2] Since the 1889 Paris Exposition, human zoos, as a key feature of world's fairs, functioned as demonstrations of anthropological notions of race, progress, and civilization. These goals were followed also at the 1904 World's Fair. Fourteen hundred indigenous people from Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and North America were displayed in anthropological exhibits that purportedly showed them in their natural habitats.[3] Another 1600 indigenous people were displaying their culture in other areas of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (LPE),[4] including on the fairgrounds and at the Model School,[5] where Indian residential school students were demonstrating their successful assimilation.

According to theorist Susan Brownell, world's fairs—with their inclusion of human zoos—and the Olympics were a logical fit at this time as they "...were both linked to an underlying cultural logic that gave them a natural affinity.... Anthropological exhibits illustrated the evolutionary beginnings of civilization, and the Olympic Games the superior physical achievements of civilized men."[6] Taking this natural fit to the next level, two key figures at the 1904 World's Fair—William John McGee and James Edward Sullivan—devised an event that would bring anthropology and sport together: Anthropology Days.

Called "The Overlord of the Savage World" in a July 17, 1904 St. Louis newspaper,[7] WJ McGee was the head of the Department of Anthropology at the LPE and the founding president of the new American Anthropological Association.[8] McGee's theories positioned white people at the highest level of man's enlightenment,[9] and some indigenous groups as close to "sub-human."[10] The LPE's Anthropology Department was devised to "compare the physical and mental characteristics of individual races"[11] using white visitors as the standard, in order to learn how they had "advanced over other races."[11]

James E. Sullivan was the head of the Department of Physical Culture at the LPE and an extremely influential figure in American sports. Theorist Nancy Parezo describes how he had a vested interest in racial comparisons—that he wanted "the world to know that American methods of scientific training produced the best athletes in the world."[12] Of particular concern to him were stories of the exceptional physical abilities of some indigenous people—which would invalidate his assertions of the superior abilities of whites.[13] Sullivan devised the "Special Olympics" (also known as Anthropology Days) as a way of testing these theories, as well as promoting the regular Olympic Games.[14]

While Anthropology Days were not officially part of the Olympics program, they were closely associated with each other at the time, and in history—Brownell notes that even today historians still debate as to which of the LPE events were the "real" Olympic Games.[15] Additionally, almost all of the 400 athletic events were referred to as "Olympian,"[15] and the opening ceremony, which normally signals the start of the Olympics, was held in May on the "first day of the first sports event"[16] with dignitaries in attendance, though the official Olympic program did not begin until July 1.[16] And as previously noted one of the original intentions of Anthropology Days was to create publicity for the official Olympic events.[14][17]

Anthropology Days took place on August 11 and 12, 1904, with about 100 indigenous men enlisted from among the human zoos, Model School and the rest of the fair grounds (no women participated in Anthropology Days, though some, notably the Fort Shaw Indian School girls basketball team, did compete in other athletic events at the LPE). Contests included "spear and baseball throwing, shot put, running, broad jumping, weight lifting, pole climbing, and tugs-of-war before a crowd of approximately ten thousand."[18]

Participants were not directly asked to compete—organizer McGee instead communicated only through (white) agents.[19] According to Parezo, contests were modeled on the Olympic protocol of amateurism, so participants were not remunerated, which resulted in several people refusing to take part.[20] Basic instructions were provided immediately before each event,[21] without language interpretation,[22] and participants were not given the opportunity to practice.[23] Many of the participants wanted to try the contests again once they understood the rules but this was not permitted as organizers believed it would have "'violated' the research design...and invalidated the racial comparisons"[22] to white athletes (who underwent extensive training and practice).

Participants competed against other members of their "race" in the initial trials, with the winners of each heat going on to compete against each other to "determine the fastest 'primitive.'"—these were the results to be compared to those of white Olympic athletes.[22] Given the lack of preparation and training for these contests, it is not surprising that the participants largely achieved low scores. Though the racial comparisons from Anthropology Days were criticized as unscientific and a "farce,"[24] Sullivan disregarded these detractions and used them to prove his theories of white racial superiority. He concluded that "enlightened Americans were the best athletes in the world"[25] and that "Native peoples were intellectually, socially, cognitively, and morally inferior by nature."[25] According to Parezo, when the scores did not fit Sullivan's theories, he excluded them, such as when he omitted from his records that "all the Native participants beat the American pole-climbing record ten seconds."[26] Though not part of Anthropology Days, the achievements of the Fort Shaw Indian School girls basketball team (who beat out white teams to become the LPE champions)[27] were similarly ignored by Sullivan.

Spectacle and appropriation at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, PQ

The 1976 Summer Olympics have been criticized for a lack of consultation and the spectacular display of indigenous people in the closing ceremony. Sport scholar Christine O'Bonsawin explains how "Montreal organizers strategically included indigenous people and imagery in the closing ceremony at a time when Canadian indigenous and government relations were operating under heightened tensions."[28] She is referring to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's 1969 Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (also called the White Paper), which was perceived by some Canadian indigenous people as a further attempt at assimilation.[29]

O'Bonsawin describes how amid these tensions the Montreal Olympic Games' closing ceremony employed indigenous symbolism without consultation with local First Nations.[30] Hundreds of performers were enlisted to perform a "tribal" dance that was choreographed by a non-indigenous choreographer, to a musical score ("La Danse Sauvage") created by a non-indigenous composer.[31] Only 200 of the 450 performers were indigenous, with the other 250 being non-indigenous people costumed and painted in "redface"—it was these non-indigenous performers who led the indigenous people into the stadium.[30] O'Bonsawin notes that particularly problematic about this approach to including indigenous "participation," is that it became a model for future Canadian Olympic Games.[31]

Claims of cultural theft and erasure at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, AB

The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta reflected some lessons learned from criticism of the 1976 games, but according to critics, they still perpetuated legacies of erasure, cultural and land theft, and appropriation committed by past Games and Canadian governmental bodies.

O'Bonsawin writes that there was significant protest from indigenous people against the use and appropriation of indigenous imagery in the 1988 Winter Games.[32] This imagery included "indigenous sounds, sights, and images [and] a massive teepee" in the opening ceremony,[33] and medals depicting "winter sporting equipment protruding from a ceremonial headdress."[34]

The 1988 Winter Games were also the subject of an international boycott called by the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation, a small community in northern Alberta. Their reasons centered around what they considered the illegal sale of their unceded lands to oil companies—unceded because they had been left out of the 1899 and 1900 treaties and the federal government was still not willing to negotiate a treaty.[35] While corporations extracted resources from their lands, the Lubicon Cree were experiencing "a 93% decline in their annual trapping income, high rates of alcoholism, a tuberculosis crisis, and malnourishment in the community."[36]

The Lubicon Cree focused their boycott on a specific Olympic event: The Spirit Sings exhibit at the Glenbow Museum, part of the official cultural programming of the Games. They protested this exhibit on several grounds, including that almost half of its funding came from Shell Oil Canada—the very company drilling for oil on their unceded land.[37] The exhibit consisted of indigenous Canadian artifacts, art and objects gathered from collections around the world.[38] Of this, Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak said: "[The] irony of using a display of North American Indian artifacts to attract people to the Winter Olympics being organized by interests who are still actively seeking to destroy Indian people seems painfully obvious."[39]

The Lubicon Cree claimed that the 665 artifacts in the exhibit had originally been stolen—expatriated from indigenous communities and displayed in Europe for public consumption and curiosity.[40] Additionally "many of the objects were sacred and not intended for public display," including a Mohawk False Face mask.[40] O'Bonsawin discusses how the Glenbow Museum committed a "second and more disgraceful wave of thievery" by returning the artifacts to the collections and museums who had loaned them, and refusing to assist indigenous groups in getting these items repatriated back to their communities.[40] The discourse generated by the Lubicon boycott of The Spirit Sings resulted in the formation of a task force that eventually released a ground-breaking report that continues to influence how museum professionals approach working with indigenous communities.[41]

In addition to the boycott of The Spirit Sings, the torch relay run was targeted by protestors for its sponsorship by Petro-Canada, which was "invading indigenous territories (including Lubicon lands) across Canada."[42] Indigenous objection was not confined to the Lubicon Cree since "protestors were present along the relay route in every province except Prince Edward Island."[43] Of these protests, former Olympiques Calgary Olympics (OCO) chairperson later wrote: "There was no room for defiance or confrontation...."[43]

Land disputes, poverty and cultural appropriation at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC

Again building on lessons learned from previous Olympic Games held in Canada, the 2010 Winter Games saw an unprecedented level of involvement by and collaboration with indigenous people, namely in the form of the Four Host First Nations (FHFN).[44] Composed of representatives from the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations from the Vancouver and Whistler areas, the FHFN was created to ensure that "their cultures and traditions are respected and showcased throughout the planning, staging, and hosting of the 2010 Winter Games."[45] But former Neskonlith chief Arthur Manuel has argued that the FHFN was created to "divide and rule over indigenous peoples in Canada"[46] and that "Canada is deliberately trying to buy its way around its terrible human rights record by creating a media spin behind the Four Host First Nations."[47] Calling the FHFN a "cheap and shallow scheme,"[47] he points out that in 2007 Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[48]

Large-scale signage with "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land" slogan.

The 2010 Winter Games were met with massive protest locally and internationally. In October 2007, 1500 indigenous delegates at the Intercontinental Indigenous Gathering in Sonora, Mexico passed a resolution stating: "We reject the 2010 Winter Olympics on sacred and stolen territory of Turtle Island – Vancouver, Canada."[49] This launched a global boycott of the 2010 Games with indigenous protests of the 2010 Winter Games rallying under the slogan, "No Olympics on stolen Native land."[50] In an interview with Democracy Now!, commentator and artist Gord Hill explains how the slogan refers to the lack of treaties in British Columbia: "It's illegal, and it's actually immoral, because they were bound by their own laws to make treaties before they settled on any land or any business took place on sovereign indigenous land."[51] The business referred to includes massive real estate developments as explained in a Dominion article:

Vast areas of unceded land that Indigenous communities depend on for hunting, fishing and general survival are at risk. Rivers, mountains and old-growth forests are being replaced by tourist resorts and highway expansions spurred by the 2010 games. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to build new resorts and expand existing ones in order to attract and accommodate tourists, Olympic athletes and trainers.[52]

One such development was the Sea-to-Sky highway expansion for which the Eagle Ridge Bluffs in North Vancouver (on Squamish territory) were to be destroyed.[53] Harriet Nahanee, a 71-year-old Pacheedaht elder who had married into the Squamish First Nation, participated in a blockade to prevent this destruction.[53] She was arrested along with 23 other protesters and imprisoned.[53] Nahanee's already fragile health deteriorated while in prison and she died shortly after her release on February 24, 2007.[54]

Housing activists protest the lack of affordable/social housing, homelessness and poverty at a protest against the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The 2010 Winter Games have also been criticized for being held in a city, province and country where so many indigenous people are living in desperate social conditions, particularly in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES), which, at the time of the Vancouver Games bid, was home to the largest off-reserve Aboriginal population in Vancouver.[55] According to the International Indigenous Youth Network in 2007, pre-Olympic real estate development was causing increased homelessness in the DTES: "512 low-income housing units were lost between June 2003 and June 2005 and almost 300 low-income housing units have been lost to rent increases in the same time period."[56] Kat Norris of the Indigenous Action Group further explains why this is of particular concern to First Nations people, who, as of 2007, constituted 30%[57] of homeless people in the DTES: "The brutal history of residential schools coupled with present day racism and discrimination has meant that 'a high percentage of our people rely on services in the downtown eastside of Vancouver.... Many of these services are facing funding cuts.'"[57] Those funding cuts were occurring while the province was expected to spend $1.5 billion on the Games, and the federal government, $2.5 billion.[58]

The high incidence of violence against indigenous women is telling of Canada's treatment of indigenous peoples: 500 First Nations women are missing from across Canada, and 76 of them are from British Columbia, where the Games were being hosted.[59] It has been estimated that of the 69 women on the official list of those missing from the DTES in Vancouver, at least a third of them are of indigenous ancestry, compared to 1.9% representation of indigenous women in the general population of Vancouver.[60]

Indigenous people have also raised concerns about the marketing and branding of the 2010 Winter Games, starting with the selection of the official Games logo, which was based on the Inuit symbol of the inuksuk, and given the name "Ilanaaq," which translates to "friend."[61] Several indigenous leaders criticized the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) for not consulting with indigenous groups on the selection of the emblem,[62] and for choosing one that did not reflect the local First Nations of the host city.[63][64] President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Chief Stewart Phillip said: "The First Nations community at large is disappointed with the selection....The decision-makers have decided not to reflect the First Nations and the Pacific region in the design of the logo....I can't help but notice the remarkable resemblance it has to Pac-Man."[65] Former Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq also criticized the design: "Inuit never build inuksuit with head, legs and arms;"[66] and the process: "[Irniq] says every inukshuk has a meaning and a reason why it was built in a certain location. He says building the structures should not be taken lightly."[67] Criticism was also directed at the fact that the logo designers were not Inuit or even First Nations.[68] Some Inuit people, in criticizing the adoption of "Ilanaaq," explicitly made the connection between cultural appropriation and commodificaton, "arguing that it dishonoured the traditional functions of inuksuk and risked turning them into commodities that could be sold for tourist consumption."[69]

Though the 2010 Winter Olympic Games did consult with indigenous people more than in past Canadian Olympic Games, that collaboration does not seem to have extended to resolving outstanding land treaties nor addressing the marginalization of indigenous people in Canada.

Olympic Games as a colonial force and recommendations

According to writings by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, sport and colonialism were logical companions. He called sports "a vigorous instrument of the disciplining" of colonized people, and viewed it as a calming force in the colonies.[70] O'Bonsawin writes that Olympism, as a philosophy, speaks "in truisms of equity, anti-discrimination, mutual recognition and respect, tolerance and solidarity."[71] But she and other critics argue that in reality Olympism serves as an apologetic for a movement that is actually "deeply politicized and xenophobic."[72] O'Bonsawin also argues that in encouraging Olympic participants to "cast aside everyday lived experiences...shaped by such factors as race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, ideology, and class" Olympism itself erases the realities of marginalized peoples.[71]

To address this erasure and the disparity between Olympism ideals and Games practice, O'Bonsawin recommends that the IOC restructure their bid evaluation process so that they can determine whether bidding countries respect the human rights and needs of marginalized peoples.[73] Instrumental to this restructuring would be the inclusion of external consultation and evaluation.[73]


  1. Definition: "...the process of transforming an object, idea, activity, or service into a commodity by capitalist economies." Beaster-Jones 2013, par. 1.
  2. International Olympic Committee. Retrieved 20 Feb 2013.
  3. Parezo 2008, p. 63.
  4. Brownell 2008, p. 32.
  5. Peavy, Linda and Ursula Smith, 2008, p. 246.
  6. Brownell, 2008, p. 29.
  7. Parezo 2008, p. 112.
  8. Brownell 2008, p. 14.
  9. Parezo 2008, p. 64.
  10. Parezo 2008, p. 66.
  11. 1 2 Parezo 2008, p. 70.
  12. Parezo 2008, p. 76.
  13. Parezo 2008, p. 83.
  14. 1 2 Parezo 2008, p. 84.
  15. 1 2 Brownell 2008, p. 3.
  16. 1 2 Brownell 2008, p. 43.
  17. Brownell 2008, p. 34.
  18. Parezo 2008, p. 59.
  19. Parezo 2008, p. 85.
  20. Parezo 2008, pp. 86-87.
  21. Parezo 2008, p. 89.
  22. 1 2 3 Parezo 2008, p. 92.
  23. Parezo 2008, p. 87.
  24. Parezo 2008, p. 96.
  25. 1 2 Parezo 2008, p. 97.
  26. Parezo 2008, p. 94.
  27. Peavy, Linda and Ursula Smith 2008, pp. 243-271.
  28. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 37.
  29. O'Bonsawin 2012, pp. 37-38.
  30. 1 2 O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 39.
  31. 1 2 O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 40.
  32. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 41.
  33. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 49.
  34. O'Bonsawin 2010, p. 147.
  35. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 42.
  36. Ferreira, D.A. (1992). "Oil and Lubicons don't mix: A land claim in northern Alberta in historical perspective," Canadian Journal of Native Studies. 12(1): 1-35, cited by O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 42.
  37. Cooper 2008, p. 22.
  38. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 43.
  39. Ominayak, Chief Bernard (1989) "Aboriginal land rights in Canada – myth and reality," NISTO – Lubicon Lake Indian Nation., cited in O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 43.
  40. 1 2 3 O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 44.
  41. Cooper 2008, pp. 25-28.
  42. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 47.
  43. 1 2 O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 48.
  44. O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 53.
  45. Government of Canada 2009, par, 1, 2.
  46. Manuel 2010, par. 1.
  47. 1 2 Manuel 2010, par. 4.
  48. Manuel 2010, par. 6.
  49. Revolutionary Hip-Hop Report 2010, par. 3.
  50. Paley 2010, par. 1.
  51. Lopez 2010, par. 11.
  52. Rolbin-Ghanie 2008, par. 4.
  53. 1 2 3 Hill 2012, p. 61.
  54. Wonders, par. 1.
  55. Statistics Canada 2001.
  56. Lindsay 2007, par. 10.
  57. 1 2 Lindsay 2007, par. 11.
  58. Lindsay 2007, par 12.
  59. Rolbin-Ghanie 2008, par. 29.
  60. Dean 2009, p. 8.
  61. Miller 2005, par. 1.
  62. Miller 2005, par. 7.
  63. Miller 2005, par. 3, 4.
  64. Nuytten 2005, par. 7, 8.
  65. National Geographic 2010, par. 4, 5.
  66. CBC Sports 2005, par. 7.
  67. CBC Sports 2005, par. 6.
  68. Nuytten 2005, par 6.
  69. Heyes, S. (2002). "Protecting the authenticity and integrity of Inuksuit in the Arctic milieu," Études/Inuit/Studies, 26(2): 133-56, cited in O'Bonsawin 2012, p. 54.
  70. Coubertin, Pierre de (1912). "Les sports et la Colonisation," Revue Olympique (January): 7-10, cited in Schantz 2008, p. 177.
  71. 1 2 O'Bonsawin 2008, p. 144.
  72. Wamsley, Kevin B. "Laying Olympism to Rest," Post-Olympism? Questioning Sport in the Twentieth-First Century, edited by John Bale and Mette Krogh Christensen, 231-42. Oxford: Berg, 2004, quoted in O'Bonsawin 2008, p. 144.
  73. 1 2 O'Bonsawin 2008, p. 153.


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