Sylvio Cator used the Olympics to seek justice decades before Tommie Smith and John Carlos
The Haitian long jumper highlighted the U.S. occupation of his country
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, 1932, Al Monroe arrived at 441 E. 42nd St. in Chicago. The beautiful home in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood belonged to the famous Black tenor George Garner and his wife Pauline, an accomplished musician in her own right. Monroe, a reporter at the Chicago Defender, wasn’t there to see the homeowners, however. His interest was in their guest, Sylvio Cator.
In a few hours, the Haitian Olympian would trade his gray trousers, gray shirt and tie for a tracksuit. Cator had attained international fame during a long athletic career that included an Olympic silver medal and a world record in the long jump. But he was much more than an athlete, as his tour of the United States would attest. For now, he greeted Monroe with a smile and settled in for their interview. Monroe asked Cator about sports in Haiti and the Olympics that had just ended in Los Angeles. He wanted to know what the former world-record holder liked to do off the track. More than anything, he was curious about what Cator thought of the United States, which denied basic rights to its Black citizens and had occupied Haiti for almost two decades.
Cator responded to what were difficult questions for an official representative of the Haitian government. “They [white Americans] treated me fine,” he said in a way that suggested the opposite. He steered the conversation away from racism, but was firm on at least one point. “Cator is sure the Olympics will not come [back] to the States for a long time,” Monroe reported. “He wouldn’t attend again if it did.”
At the 1932 Games, held in the twilight of the first U.S. occupation of Haiti, Cator navigated the roles of athlete, activist and ambassador. He strengthened connections between Haitians and African Americans, defended Haiti, and protested racism and imperialism in subtle but perceptible ways. Four years before Jesse Owens put the lie to Aryan supremacy in Berlin, decades before Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico City, he put his Olympic platform to political use.
While Owens, Carlos and Smith have retained their fame, Cator has fallen into undeserved obscurity. Few outside Haiti know his name. Yet, at a time when protests against racism and state violence are staples of U.S. and global sport, and the International Olympic Committee has banned such protests at the Tokyo Games, his story matters. It is a key part of the history of athlete activism.
Although he was born in October 1900 in Cavaillon, a small town in Haiti’s southern peninsula, Cator’s story really begins in exile. In 1911, dissidents deposed Haitian President Francois C. Antoine Simon. Pressured by an expanding U.S. empire, Simon had allowed the National City Bank of New York to purchase a majority share in the National Bank of Haiti and granted U.S. tycoon James P. McDonald control over Haiti’s national railway. His concessions angered Haitian nationalists, small landholders and the United States’ imperial rivals alike. After his ouster by opponents backed by German merchants, Simon fled to Kingston, New York, joined by his confidants.
Gen. Joseph Milien Cator and his family, including his son Sylvio, were among them. In Jamaica, the young Cator recalled, “I played a lot of sports, soccer, running, I tried the long jump.” He realized that he was good, maybe great, and, by the time he went back to Haiti at the age of 19, he had set his sights on a sports career.
Cator returned to a country controlled by the Americans, not Haitians. U.S. Marines had invaded the Haitian capital in July 1915, with President Woodrow Wilson calling it a necessary “intervention” into Haiti’s tumultuous politics. His secretary of state, Robert Lansing, had argued that the United States had to “civilize” Haitians, who proved that Black people would always “revert to savagery.”
Cator’s homecoming also coincided with a historic investigation. In February 1920, as the U.S. occupation entered its fifth year, James Weldon Johnson, the field secretary of the NAACP, arrived in Port-au-Prince to report on occupied Haiti.
His ensuing expose was a bombshell. In a four-part article published in The Nation, Johnson noted that a vice president of National City Bank was a decisive voice on U.S. policy in Haiti. He reported that the Marines had killed at least 3,000 men, women and children. Some were freedom fighters resisting occupation. Others were non-combatants. Explaining that the Marines had segregated Haiti’s cities and essentially restored slavery in the countryside, he observed that “Americans have carried American hatred to Haiti.”
Cator’s life was profoundly shaped by the occupation. While he became a soccer star and set national records in the high jump and long jump, his success came under the eye of the Marines. Just like in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the United States used sport as entertainment and propaganda for its occupation of Haiti. Its Marines tried and failed to export baseball to Haiti, but it organized the track and field competitions that became Cator’s launching pad into global sports. On June 1, 1924, Cator and two other Haitian athletes set sail from Port-au-Prince bound for Paris. The U.S. press announced that the entrance of Cator, Edouard Armand and André Theard into the 1924 Summer Games was a testament to the U.S. empire, especially the “continued security and order of the American regime and the influence of the Marine Corps athletic meets.” Haitians, their nationalism strengthened by the crisis of occupation, saw things differently.
The Olympics have always been a Janus-faced event. While founded on an ideal of international cooperation, they have provided a platform for fascism and apartheid. Terrorists have co-opted the Games. While promising a better world through sport, the Olympics have affirmed empires and amplified conflict. Yet, they’ve also been a stage for radical political dissent.
Cator, Armand and Theard dramatized these contradictions when, on July 6, 1924, they marched into Paris’ Stade Olympique de Colombes, flying the flag of an occupied nation.
At his first Olympics, Cator failed to place in the long jump, his best event. But he recognized that his disappointing performance was due to poor training, not a lack of ability. Remaining in France, Cator practiced with the Club Athlétique de Société Générale, one of the best sporting clubs in Europe. In the summer of 1925, he returned to competition and proceeded to go undefeated in 10 consecutive long jump competitions across Europe.
African Americans took note. Galvanized by Johnson’s exposé, Black newspapers in the U.S. had become fierce voices of protest against the occupation of Haiti, which they saw as an extension of U.S. racism. They claimed Cator as a symbol of Black achievement in the face of oppression. Cator, the Pittsburgh Courier crowed, was part of “a quartette of dark-skinned broad-jumping fools,” including three Americans, who ruled that event. It had no doubt that he’d be a “tough nut to break at Amsterdam,” the site of the next Olympic Games.
In September 1928, one month after winning the silver medal in the long jump in Amsterdam, Cator once again looked down the runway at a meet in the Stade Olympique de Colombes. He began his slow jog, increasing his pace about halfway down the runway. He was at a full sprint by the time he reached the edge of the pit. In the air, he swung his left leg and left hand forward. When he landed, he had set a world record of 7.93 meters, beating the old mark of 7.90 meters.
Cator brushed off his hands and raised his arms in triumph. But racism marred the moment. “Cator broke the record,” one French journalist wrote in L’Intransigeant. “Then subconsciously, he dances … only the tom-tom is missing.”
The fictional recreation of his celebration surely stung Cator because he was part of an elite that often saw itself as more cultured than the Haitian masses. Yet, it would also have offended him because Cator knew that the myth of Haiti as exotic and savage was an excuse for its occupation.
“Do you imagine,” Cator protested to another French writer, “that my bedroom is full of fetishes and that I turn into a witch doctor when I get home?”
He refused to be the object of colonial fantasies. Before leaving France in October 1928, Cator gave an interview to a leading French sports journal recounting his Olympic journey.
“I started dreaming about [the world] record. You know that in Holland I was terribly bothered by the freezing temperatures … I finished second behind the American [Ed] Hamm. I was heartbroken, devastated. I would have really liked to have the Haitian flag fly on the Olympic pole!
“Because you have to say that [sprinter Andre] Theard and I have a mission: to make our country known. And we are convinced that the propaganda of sports is the best.”
Fresh off his world record, Cator returned to a country fighting for its freedom. In October 1929, students at the U.S.-directed agricultural school at Damien, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, went on strike. They were incensed by reductions to their merit scholarships and the reallocation of funds to a work-study program that required students to perform manual labor. Their actions lit the fuse for an explosion. Students at other campuses in Port-au-Prince joined the strike. Government workers followed suit while peasants rebelled. On Dec. 6, 1,500 people marched on Les Cayes in southwestern Haiti. The Marines fired on them with machine guns, killing at least 12 and wounding many more.
The event was an international embarrassment. One day later, U.S. President Herbert Hoover formally asked Congress for a commission to reassess the country’s policy in Haiti.
Cator leaped at the chance to help his country and collected signatures on petitions to the all-white U.S. commission that landed in Port-au-Prince in 1930. Their demands included the restoration of constitutional rights, the return of free elections and the removal of the Marines. They also wanted the immediate resignation of Haitian President Louis Borno, a puppet of the United States.
In giving voice to those demands, Cator emerged as a full-fledged athlete activist long before the term came into vogue. Hailed in the press as “our national hero” for his success in sports, he embodied the nationalist spirit that would move Haiti toward independence.
On July 1, 1932, a reporter with the Salt Lake Telegram interviewed Cator as he passed through the Union Pacific station in Salt Lake City on his way to Los Angeles. As porters and passengers rushed by, the reporter asked the long jumper about his training regimen, his diet and his goals for the upcoming Olympics. He was taken aback that Cator wanted to talk about more than track. “This is where Sen. [William H.] King lives, isn’t it?” Cator reportedly asked, unprompted. King, a longtime opponent of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, was “one of the most popular Americans” in my country, Cator continued. He had “won the hearts of the [Haitian] people.” For Cator, the 1932 Olympics was the platform from which he could make the closing argument for his country’s freedom. Borno had resigned in May 1930 and that fall, the United States authorized the first national elections in Haiti since the start of the occupation. Voters packed Parliament with anti-occupation activists. Nationalist Sténio Vincent became president. And Cator went from a catalyst to part of the political transition. In 1930, he became the local correspondent for the United Press and a source for African American journalist Claude Barnett’s Associated Negro Press. He was the president of the Haitian Sports Federation when he arrived in the United States – an athlete and ambassador for Haiti as its second independence appeared to be on the horizon.
The roles were not easy to balance, as evidenced by one of his companions in Los Angeles: Haiti’s delegation had an official Olympic attache, Col. Arthur T. Marix. A retired Marine, Marix had played a key role in the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, which lasted from 1916 to 1924. He was a reminder that Haiti remained under the military and surveillance power of the country in which Cator now competed.
Those circumstances made Cator eager to reclaim a world record that had been broken just months earlier by Chuhei Nambu of Japan. Unfortunately, he had limited opportunity to train due to his growing professional responsibilities. To make matters worse, in the days before the Olympics began, he aggravated a leg injury that had already required medical attention.
Competing with both legs wrapped in bandages, Cator placed ninth with a jump of 5.93 meters. He watched, heartbroken, as African American Ed Gordon won gold with a jump of 7.64 meters. (Nambu finished third.) “This was no vacation for me,” Cator lamented to reporters. “I am terribly disappointed … it was my last chance [at Olympic gold].”
Refusing to go out on a sour note, Cator resolved to remain in the United States for two more weeks to take another crack at the world record. He went to Chicago for a meet hosted by the Amateur Athletic Union inspired by one thought: “I have never failed my Haiti before.”
In Chicago, Cator did not reclaim the world record, but he defeated Gordon and won gold. Still, his most impactful performances came off the track. The reporter Monroe lauded Cator as a “gentleman, respected and trusted with matters that countries usually leave to their great statesmen.” Roger Didier of the Associated Negro Press hailed Cator as “a great lone athlete, representing a proud little country which fought off the yoke of slavery.” His Chicago host, Garner, proclaimed that “the modest Haitian was the most inspiring athlete he had ever met.”
Throughout the summer and fall of 1932, Cator gave numerous interviews reminding Americans that Haitians had fought alongside the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He stood firm against the stereotypes used to deny Haiti its own independence.
The stereotypes came from all corners, including Cator’s onetime employer. When Cator arrived at the offices of the United Press for one of his final interviews before returning to Haiti, Henry McLemore, the wire service’s chief sportswriter, wrote that he expected Cator to “enter with a bunch of voodoo feathers in his hand, a sacrificial goat over one shoulder, and chanting mumbo-jumbo business.”
It was an image straight from the pages of William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, the most influential book among several that exported exoticized stories of Vodou and zombies from occupied Haiti. The reporter was shocked when Cator appeared in his signature gray suit. “Well … you don’t look much like a witch doctor,” was his snide greeting.
By then, Cator had a ready retort. “Been reading Seabrook’s Magic Island, haven’t you?” Cator replied. “Very charming writer, Seabrook. So charming, in fact, that he can make 350 pages out of what I believe you call ‘hooey,’ interesting.”
In August 1934, the last contingent of Marines left Port-au-Prince. Cator had dreamed of, fought for that moment even while striving for personal greatness. With his athletic career behind him, he focused on the work of forging new independence for his country. Under Vincent, Haiti’s first post-occupation president, Cator worked as the head of the Haitian tourist bureau. Like other Caribbean countries, Haiti had identified tourism as a potential source of economic growth. The charismatic, world-renowned Cator seemed like the perfect man to tap into its potential. While Cator might have chafed at advertisements of Haiti as an exotic island paradise, he used his position to further strengthen bonds between African Americans and Haitians. He was the liaison for William Pickens when the field secretary of the NAACP visited Haiti. He also hosted two groundbreaking Black pilots, Albert Forsythe and Charles Alfred Anderson, the latter the man who became the flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen.
As he laid the groundwork for Haiti’s “Golden Age of Tourism,” Cator was also a useful political symbol during a promising but perilous period. In 1946, student protesters rose up against President Elie Lescot. They were angered by the illiberalism of post-occupation Haitian governments and incensed by continued U.S. interference in the country’s economics and politics. The provisional military government that emerged out of the Revolution of 1946 appointed Cator as mayor of Port-au-Prince as a signal to both Haitians and the United States that Haiti wasn’t going to become a military state.
In a fitting, final act to his public life, Cator served as a commissioner at the International Exposition of Port-au-Prince, a bicentennial celebration for the capital city. In the words of historian Hadassah St. Hubert, the exposition, which ran from 1949 to 1950, “created an opportunity for the Haitian government … to transform the capital of Port-au-Prince into a visionary ‘modern’ city.”
On July 22, 1952, one day after suffering a fatal heart attack, Cator received a state funeral. After his remains lay in state for more than an hour at the Legislative Palace, an honor guard led the procession that brought his casket to the national cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince. The streets of the capital were packed by the end of the funeral mass, as the procession made its way to its national cemetery. While cannons boomed a tribute from Fort National, the jerseys of local soccer teams dotting the crowd delivered an equally emphatic message. As one Haitian newspaper reported, the uniforms were “the type of youth costumes that Sylvio loved the best.” No one in the crowd that day could have predicted that Cator would be the last Olympic medalist that most would see in their lifetimes. When Haitian president Paul Magloire named the country’s main athletic stadium after Cator, he imagined it as a towering inspiration for the next generation of Haitian athletes. Neither he nor others could foresee a future in which many of the best athletes of Haitian descent would hold U.S., Canadian and European passports.
In 1957, François Duvalier came to power with the support of a military that had been reorganized and strengthened by the Marines during the occupation. For the next 30 years, he and his son Jean-Claude held Haiti under the grip of a brutal dictatorship. Both men would do their part in the war against communism and receive millions of dollars of U.S. aid in return. Some of that money went into the Haitian Football Federation, helping the national team qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Most went into the Duvalier’s pockets. Thousands of Haitians fled overseas, leaving a country where, decades after their forebears had refused the imposition of the American pastime, foreign-owned sweatshops exported 20 million baseballs per year.
To remember Cator’s life is to recall a time when Haiti’s athletes were at the forefront of both global sport and the struggle for its second independence and the fight for Haiti’s sovereignty played out in Olympic arenas. Today, with Haitians still fighting for the sovereignty that Cator and his contemporaries envisioned, his story demands attention. As a new generation of athletes is set to take the Olympic stage, it’s a reminder that international sport is always political. That protest and activism are the athletes’ inheritance.