How One South African Poet Reformed the Olympics to Combat Apartheid

Dennis Brutus takes sports to the streets, 1987. Dennis Brutus at Philadelphia Demonstration against Apartheid. Photograph. Philadelphia. This image comes from the private collection of Harvey Finkle.

Henry Jacob
University of Cambridge

Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), a father of the modern Olympic Games, framed his philosophy of sport around elitist principles. The French baron considered aristocratic white males as the “only true Olympic hero[es].”[2] While ignoring the blatant racism and classism of his beliefs, de Coubertin insisted that athletics transcended social concerns. Ironically, he lamented  that “politics is making its way into the heart of every issue,” though he maintained that the competition’s purity derived from its supposed apolitical nature.[3] Soon after the death of de Coubertin, South African poet Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) intuited the contradictions of the Frenchman’s Olympism. Discriminatory laws showed Brutus how governmental affairs plagued athletics in his homeland. Over his decades-long campaign to ban his country’s participation in the Olympics, Brutus struggled to win justice while disputing de Coubertin’s logic. In dismantling the Frenchman’s tenets, he pioneered a novel Olympism, one that pursued connection among humans rather than distinctions along racial lines.

This piece intersects with the historiographies of sports, civil rights, and apartheid in South Africa. To start, this essay draws upon the work of leading specialists on South Africa such as Saul Dubow. In particular, his Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919-1936 and Apartheid, 1948-1994 have informed this blog post. Dubow’s studies on the roots, and the persistence of Apartheid, throughout the twentieth century provide insights on the system against which Brutus struggled. In addition, this piece takes inspiration from critical interdisciplinary perspectives on the Olympics. Sidonie Smith, Kay Schaffer, Kevin Wamsley, and Kevin Young have dissected the dynamics of symbols, power, and politics in the modern games. Of course, this piece also seeks to engage with existing literature on Brutus himself. In recent years, academics have devoted more energies to evaluating the South African’s career and legacy. Edited volumes such as Critical Perspectives on Dennis Brutus as well as Poetry and Protest: a Dennis Brutus Reader attest to the richness of this subfield. Even more, Tyrone August released a monograph in 2020 that deals with Brutus’s early years in South Africa before his 1966 exile. On the whole, this piece seeks to complement these scholars who have provided such lucid surveys of South Africa, the Olympics, and how Brutus blended poetics and activism.

The playground became a battlefield for justice. South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. 1981. “South Africa’s APARTHEID RUGBY The Facts.” South Africa’s APARTHEID RUGBY The Facts. New York. This is part of the George M. Houser (Africa collection), Michigan State University Libraries Special Collections.

Brutus turned to activism when he saw that white South Africans garnered more accolades than Black counterparts due to their skin rather than their skill. As a student at the University of Fort Hare during the 1940s, Brutus admired “some absolutely brilliant black athletes” who won races but received scant recognition.[5] Whites may have clocked slower times at the 440-yard dash or mile run, but they still received Olympic invitations. Upon learning of the hurdles these record-breakers faced Brutus became enraged. The objectivity of sport, the raw time in a race, for example, threw into sharp relief the racist practices that plagued the country. The “brute reality” of Apartheid athletics pushed the young writer into action. Brutus recalled that this injustice “made me mad… and I got involved in organizing meetings and forming unions,” as a result.[6] With time, Brutus honed his oratory and leadership capacities, channeling his anger into concrete tactics. Along the way, Brutus expanded his scope, determining that only repudiation from the highest international body of sport, the Olympics, could reform South African policies.  

In 1962, Brutus founded the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, an organization that advocated racial justice through inclusive athletic policies. From the start, Brutus stressed that politics and athletics remained inextricably intertwined. The activist articulated this conviction in a speech delivered in Budapest: “the one problem [of Apartheid] cannot be solved in isolation from the other,” namely athletic participation.[7] By revealing the wrongs of discrimination through speaking tours, protests, and other events, this program amassed a transnational network of support.

Brutus fought Apartheid in South Africa and racism across the world. Upper Valley Committee for a Free Southern Africa, 1982. “South Africa: The Struggle for Freedom.” South Africa: The Struggle for Freedom. Hanover, New Hampshire. This is part of the Vermont Committee on Southern Africa (Liz Blum collection), Michigan State University Libraries Special Collections.

Throughout this Brutus upended de Coubertin’s division between politics and sport by blending the two into a single crusade. He therefore won a form of justice that transcended the racetrack and even his nation. Later in life, Brutus reflected that his advocacy proved “important in eroding the walls of apartheid in South Africa” as well as advancing a novel approach to uniting society and sport.[9] Brutus and his allies’ years of protest, jail time, and hope culminated in victory. On August 18, 1964, the International Olympic Committee officially banned South Africa from participation in the games, an expulsion that lasted over two decades.

As different from the Frenchman as he may have been politically, Brutus did not dismiss athletics itself; instead, the South African respected the games as “one of the great institutions of society” because they promised the possibility for worldwide competition based on merit alone.[10] The young Brutus reacted so strongly when he saw runners denied a chance because he believed in the Olympics as a universal symbol. Without a doubt, it was an imperfect one, but Brutus understood the potential potency of this platform. Recognizing the power of the Olympic committee’s choice to bar South Africa, Brutus noted that “exposing the unfairness of racialism is, in itself, a justification of the existence of the Olympic Games.”[11] Just as importantly, this condemnation of Apartheid validated Brutus’s style of protest. As he noted, “much of the world is beginning to believe that it is starry-eyed idealism to think that politics can be excluded from sport” exactly because the Olympics elevated racism to the global stage.[12]

But Brutus did not simply employ sport to combat Apartheid and the core of de Coubertin’s vision for Olympism. He also promoted an Olympic ideal that traversed racial lines and connected at the human. Referring to himself first and foremost as “a citizen of the world,” a “‘Human’” instead of any particular race, Brutus advocated for the games as exercises in cosmopolitanism.[13] In the end, Brutus replaced de Coubertin’s Olympic ideals with ones that better fulfilled the sport’s universal promises. Though no sportsman himself, the South African advanced the new “Olympic hero,” an athlete who protested, played and rejoiced in the commonalities among humanity.

Henry Jacob is a recent Yale graduate and a current Henry Fellow at the University of Cambridge pursuing an M.Phil. in World History. His scholarship focuses on Anglo-American designs for interoceanic transit in tropical and polar regions from the nineteenth century to the present.

[2] Les Jeux à Tokio en 1940?…Déclarations de M. Pierre de Coubertin recueilles par André Lang,in: Le Journal, Paris, August 27, 1936, no. 16019, Page 1 in Coubertin, Pierre de. 2000. Olympism: Selected Writings. Translated by Norbert Müller. Lausanne: International Olympic Committee.

[3] L’Olympisme et la politique, in: La Revue Sportive Illustrée, Vol. 32, 1936, special issue, Page 38.

[5] Brutus, Dennis, and Bernth Lindfors. 2011. The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. Page 137.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Handwritten notes on paper dated September 5, 1966, at Vores Caillag Hotel, Budapest, Hungary, Yale University collections.

[9] Brutus, Dennis, and Bernth Lindfors. 2011. The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. Page 122.

[10] Racism Defeated in Olympics Way No. 71. December 1968. Rue d’Aron, Brussels, Belgium, Page 39-41.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Brutus, Dennis, and Bernth Lindfors. 2011. The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. Page 139.