Inharmonious Pursuits: Performing Racism at the Olympic Games

Sean Fredric Edgecomb


In a 1935 radio address, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, elucidated his concept of the religio athletae when he stated, “the ancient as well as the modern Olympic Games have one most important feature in common: they are a religion.” By reconsidering Olympic ceremony as religious ritual, a new avenue of scholarship is opened whereby one may examine the dogma of Olympic performance in context to the history of popular entertainment.  My study contrasts and compares the games of St. Louis 1904 and Berlin 1936. While the Berlin games or “Nazi Olympics” have long been remembered for their manipulation of the Thingspiel and nationalistic propaganda to promote white-supremacy, I argue that the often overlooked St. Louis games had a similar agenda, showcased in the performative competitions of “anthropology days” (which exploited “primitives” from around the world to support racial stratification). By engineering the religiosity and charisma of Olympism to support their own hegemonic ideologies, the organizers of the St. Louis and Berlin Games created a racist agenda in the midst of a celebration that was intended to be “a harmonious pursuit of physical, moral, cultural, and artistic excellence.”

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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303