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Tom Longboat: What do you know about Canada at the 1908 and 1948 Olympics? (Charles A. Aylett/Library and Archives Canada)
Tom Longboat: What do you know about Canada at the 1908 and 1948 Olympics? (Charles A. Aylett/Library and Archives Canada)

J.D.M. Stewart

Medals and maples in London again Add to ...

As the world’s attention turns to London this week for the 2012 Olympic Games, there is no doubt that some great moments will be added to Canada’s athletic history. But Canadians may be surprised at the foothold they have already established in that great city’s Olympic history.

Twice before, London has played host to the Olympics – in 1908 and 1948. Both events provided memorable moments for Canada, including great triumphs and crushing disappointments.

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The last London Games were held just three years after the end of the Second World War. Cancelled in 1940 and 1944, their return in 1948 was a minor miracle. There were no new facilities or housing for the athletes. There were no teams from Japan or Germany, either.

For Canada, they were a disappointment, with no gold medals and just three overall. War veteran Douglas Bennett won a silver in the 1,000-metre canoe, while his paddling teammate Norm Lane won a bronze in the 10,000-metre race. (Mr. Lane, a 92-year-old resident of Hamilton, remains one of the country’s oldest living Olympic medalists.) The women’s 4x100-metre relay team ran its way to bronze.

The 1908 Games were much different for Canada – at once successful, dramatic and disappointing.

The country’s most decorated athlete was Bobby Kerr. An Irish immigrant and another Hamilton boy, Kerr was an outstanding sprinter – “the greatest in the world,” according to the London press. He won gold in the 200 metres and bronze in the 100 metres. His city held enthusiastic parades for him upon his return.

Kerr was Canada’s first double medalist and was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 after a career that included service in the First World War and a lifelong contribution to athletics.

Canadian athletes also won gold in shooting and lacrosse, but the most famous piece of Olympic history involving Canada and the London Games is the story of Tom Longboat, “the greatest runner of them all.”

Longboat, an Onondaga runner from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont., ran with the dominion’s hopes on his shoulders. Fresh off a dramatic win in the 1907 Boston Marathon, Longboat was the favourite in London in 1908.

After 20 miles of running, however – on a day that was unusually hot for London – he collapsed, never to compete the race. Rumours of a drug overdose persisted, but no definitive answer has ever explained his failure to finish.

Longboat’s story remains one of the most fascinating in all of Canadian sport, but his unexpected loss deflated the country and must rank among the top five Olympic disappointments in Canadian history. The Globe reported that when citizens of Toronto heard the news of his loss, “they filled the streets of the city with a sound like that of mourning.”

While Canada earned only modest success at the previous London Games, one constant is visible in photographs from those days: the Maple Leaf.

Long before it became an official element on the country’s flag, athletes in London proudly wore it across their chests. As Canadians participate in their third London Olympics, the Maple Leaf will again be prominent. And no doubt, history, in some form, will be made.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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