Sylvio Cator: Haiti’s Olympian

By Brandon R. Byrd

Sylvio Cator from Haiti to see you.”

On August 27, 1932, those seven words brought work at the United Press to a halt. At once, the sports reporters at the New York-based news agency strained their ears, listening for “the sinister booming of tom toms.” There were none. No matter, though. The journalists still “expected to see Sylvio enter with a bunch of voodoo feathers in his hand, a sacrificial goat over one shoulder, and chanting mumbo-jumbo business.”

Yet, when Cator did enter the office, he came without those accessories. Instead, the Haitian long jumper at the recent Olympic games in Los Angeles, was “impeccably attired in a gray ensemble.” “Well,” the disappointed journalists lamented, “you don’t look much like a witch doctor.” Laughing, Cator suggested that his hosts must have been reading William Seabrook’s The Magic Island. His voice dripping with sarcasm, Cator noted that the novel that first introduced the trope of the Haitian zombie to the U.S. mainstream was “so charming.” After all, it had made “350 pages of what I believe you call ‘hooey,’ interesting.”

“No,” Cator concluded in mock apology, “not all of us Haitians are savages.”[1]

Sylvio Cator c. 1928 (Source: L'Union Suite)

Sylvio Cator c. 1928 (Source: L’Union Suite)

It is quite possible that Henry McLemore, the top UP sports writer, invented this incredible scene before sending it out to newspapers across the United States. Still, there was a great deal of truth in his account. White Americans did associate “voodoo,” animal (or even human) sacrifices, primitive “tom toms,” and “mumbo-jumbo business” with Haiti, a country that the United States then occupied and had long associated with the worst caricatures of blackness. William Seabrook, a well-known white travel writer, had caused a sensation with his travelogue about Haiti entitled The Magic Island. And, most importantly, Sylvio Cator was a no-nonsense Haitian athlete and intellectual who represented his country with pride, on and off the track.

Sylvio Cator was an international star long before the UP fetishized him. Born in October 1900 in Haiti’s Sud Department, Cator distinguished himself at an early age in a number of sports including soccer, tennis, and track. He participated in the high jump and the long jump at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris and won the silver medal (the last Olympic medal won by Haiti) in the long jump at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. In fact, Cator broke the world-record in the long jump at a meet held in Paris one month after the Amsterdam games. Such feats led the U.S. press to dub him the “Haitian Grasshopper,” an awkward albeit apt nickname for the first person to clear 26’ in his signature event.

All of that success came under the shadow of the United States. When Cator was fifteen years old, U.S. Marines landed outside of Port-au-Prince and began a brutal military occupation of Haiti. The occupation would shape—devastate—all aspects of Haitian life, including athletics. While the foreign press credited the U.S. Marines with training Cator, the budding world-class long jumper implied that the occupiers were a hindrance rather than a help to his development. In interviews delivered to the U.S. press, Cator declared that he had “little inducement to formal exercise” in his occupied country but stated that “the hills around Port-au-Prince [were] numerous and steep enough to keep any active person in condition.”[2] Put simply, Cator maintained that it was Haiti that shaped him, not the U.S. Marines.

Indeed, Cator, like many of his compatriots, articulated a strong opposition to the occupation. During his childhood, Cator refused to play baseball, the sport that U.S. troops exported throughout Latin America but failed to force upon Haitians. Such resistance to the occupation became more explicit as Cator matured and achieved international renown. In 1930, Cator joined with student activists in making public demands for the ouster of Louis Borno, the U.S.-backed president of Haiti. Moreover, Cator placed his demands for Haitian liberation before two commissions that U.S. president Herbert Hoover sent to Haiti that year. In particular, African American journalists who went to Haiti alongside the Moton Commission (a group of leading black educators tasked with investigating Haitian schools) noted that Cator associated himself with leaders of the Haitian anti-occupation movement including editor Joseph Jolibois Fils. From their perspective, Cator was very much part of a community of Haitian nationalists that had “been the bee in the bonnet of the American occupation” while working “to bring the people of Haiti and the colored people of the United States closer together.”[3]

By the summer of 1932, Cator was thus much more than an athlete. He had become the president of the Haitian Sports Federation and a correspondent of the United Press. He had established himself as an outspoken and erudite spokesperson for Haiti capable of defending it in French, English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. In short, Cator was an Olympian whose significance transcended sport.

The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), June 28, 1932

The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), June 28, 1932

When Cator arrived in California for the Olympics, the U.S. press characterized him as part of an invasion of foreign athletes. The irony was not lost on Cator. The fact that he came from an invaded land—that he was in the country then occupying his own—was never far from his mind. How could it be when the official attaché to the Haitian Olympic team was a colonel in the U.S. Marines?

Despite the surveillance that he experienced as a member of the Haitian Olympic team and an employee of the Haitian government, Cator continued to find ways to critique the United States. In particular, he used the black press to that end. In one interview with a reporter from the Chicago Defender, Cator predicted that the Olympics would not return to the United States for a long time and assured the leading African American newspaper that he would not attend them when or if they did. His meaning was clear to the reporter. The Defender noted that Cator said little about the prejudice he experienced in Los Angeles but wrote that he offered a wry and knowing smile when the conversation shifted to the racism that other black Olympians experienced. Although wary about discussing Jim Crow for fear of reprisal while in the United States, Cator still managed to make clear his awareness of racism and his solidarity with African Americans.[4]

In many ways, Cator used his proud demeanor to articulate his politics. Despite failing to qualify for the long jump finals after injuring himself in the qualifying rounds, Cator was one of the luminaries of the Olympic Village. Roger Didier, a writer for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), explained that African Americans who earned medals in Los Angeles had to “move over and make room for another, who won neither title nor points in the Golden West, but who stands unique among them all in his contributions for the prestige of the Negro.” That addition to the pantheon of “Negro champions” was, of course, Cator. Didier noted that Cator came to the United States to “achieve something for his dear Haiti . . . to conquer.” Put simply, he was “a great lone athlete representing a proud little country which fought off the yoke of slavery.”

In the end, his defeat on the track was irrelevant. What mattered was his spirit, his embodiment of the “courage [that] helped his countrymen to thwart the selfish ambitions of the great Napoleon.”[5]

After the 2010 earthquake, Haitians re-built their communities at the Stade Sylvio Cator (Source: Joel Carlson)

After the 2010 earthquake, Haitians re-built their communities at the Stade Sylvio Cator (Source: Joel Carlson)

More than six decades after Cator’s death in Port-au-Prince, far less favorable ideas about Haiti and Haitians still abound. In many respects, they have changed very little since Henry McLemore and the United Press registered their surprise that Cator did not walk around with “voodoo feathers in his hand.” Today, mainstream news outlets explain that Haitian Olympians represent the “poorest nation in the Americas” as if just writing “Haiti” would not suffice. They show little interest in the thoughts, hopes, and ambitions of Haitian athletes. Instead, accounts of the “scarce funds” available to the Olympic Committee of Haiti and its athletes’ “rocky route to Rio” take precedence. Ultimately, these stories help reinforce what Haitian anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has shown to be the most enduring and damaging stereotype of Haiti: that it is the worst form of blackness. Poor. Inferior. Underdeveloped. Damaged.

What, then, would a more truthful account of the Haitian athletic experience entail? At the very least, it would center the voices of Haitian athletes, not the prejudices of foreigners. It might begin but certainly would not end with the life, thought, and legacy of Sylvio Cator, a Haitian Olympian who once came to the Los Angeles games seeking gold—and national liberation.

Brandon R. Byrd is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His research and teaching interests lie in United States, African American and African Diaspora History, with a particular focus on black intellectual history. He is also a regular blogger with the African American Intellectual History Society (www.aaihs.org).


[1] Henry McLemore, “Today’s Parade of Sports,” The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, August 27, 1932.
[2] “Cator Confident of Broad Jump Win,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 16, 1932.
[3] P.L. Prattis, “Two Correspondents Find They Are Not Without Honor,” Plaindealer, July 4, 1930.
[4] AL Monroe, “Chicago Sees Haiti’s Jump King,” Chicago Defender, August 27, 1932.
[5] Roger Didier, “Sylvio Cator: In Whom Sports Writer of Associated Negro Press Sees Spirit of Haiti,” New York Amsterdam News, August 31, 1932.

2 thoughts on “Sylvio Cator: Haiti’s Olympian

  1. Jah love. Thanks for writing a great article about a very important person for Ayiti. Sylvio Cator was obviously talented and he triumphed over racism and other kinds of prejudices. I am proud of his gold medals and also of the legacy of success in athletics that he leaves for all Ayiti people to follow. Blessed love.

    Like

  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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