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Essay

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Canadians and the Olympics

By Bruce Kidd


Canadian Amateur sport constitutes one of the longest-standing nationalist movements in Canada. In the year of Confederation, Montreal dentist and lacrosse player George Beers established the National Amateur Lacrosse Association to instill self-discipline and a sense of citizenship among athletes through the orderly conduct of games and to foster pride in the new nation through dramatic athletic performances in international competition. Subsequent amateur sports leaders adopted these goals and when they joined Pierre de Coubertin's modern Olympic Movement early in the 20th century, they made Canadian Olympic teams a flagship for these ambitions.

The first Canadians to compete in the Olympics did so as individuals or as members of local clubs. Canada's first Olympic champion was Toronto Lacrosse Club star George Orton. At the 1900 Olympics, Orton, who was studying at the University of Pennsylvania, travelled to Paris with the American team and took the gold medal in the 2500-metre steeplechase and the bronze for the 400-metre hurdles. The requirement that athletes compete as members of national teams was not established until the Games of the IV Olympiad in London in 1908.

At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Canada took four gold medals. Étienne Desmarteau of the Montreal Police Athletic Association won the hammer throw and George Lyon of Toronto's Lambton Golf Club won the golf competition. The Galt Football Club, and the Winnipeg Shamrock Lacrosse Club won titles in their respective sports. In 1906, at the so-called Interim Games in Athens, Hamilton runner Billy Sherring, sporting a large green shamrock on his chest, won the marathon. Despite their local affiliations, these athletes' victories were quickly claimed for Canada, and whetted public appetite for the Olympic Games.

Towards a national team

The link between Canadian Olympic teams and Canadian nationalism was irreversibly forged at the 1908 Olympics. The Team was selected from the first ever Olympic trials and funded mainly by the federal government. All team members wore the maple leaf.

At the time, two competing amateur federations vied for the allegiances of athletes, clubs and the sporting public. The Toronto-based Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), in keeping with its ambition to develop Canadian citizenship, advocated a strict amateurism, while the Montreal-based Amateur Athletic Federation (AAF) allowed amateurs to play on the same teams as professionals and advocated closer relations with the United States. Athletes from both federations won places on the Canadian team. But when the AAF supported an American challenge to the eligibility of Onondaga marathon runner Tom Longboat, a popular member of the AAU, public opinion erupted against such 'base treachery' and the AAF was forced to disband. This episode ensured that the ideals of youth development through sports, the Olympics and Canadian nationalism would always be closely linked.

Longboat was eventually cleared to run in the 1908 Olympic marathon, but he collapsed at the 30-kilometre mark, a victim of a drug overdose. Whether he was doped to give him a boost or to put him out of the race has been a matter of controversy ever since. But other Canadians had better fortunes. Led by Hamilton's Bobby Kerr, who won the 200 metres and took third in the 100 metres, the Team returned with three gold, three silver, and nine bronze medals.

In 1912 in Stockholm, a much smaller Team did almost as well, winning three gold, two silver and three bronze. McGill University student George Hodgson won the 400 metres and 1500 metres in the pool, setting new world records in both events -- his winning margin in the longer race was 39 seconds.

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