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Through no fault of his own, the first great Canadian athlete of our 150-year national experiment did not compete under the flag of Canada. Perhaps that is why he is all but forgotten today.

George Washington Orton was born in Strathroy, Ont., in 1873 – six years after Confederation. He was the son of a carriage maker.

His interest in athletics was the ironic side effect of a crippling childhood accident. Orton learned to walk again by running.

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He spent his formative years in Canada, but left to do his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. That institution sent a team to the second modern Olympics, in Paris in 1900. Since Canada had no delegation in France, the 27-year-old Orton joined his alma mater and ran in U.S. colours.

Those Games were, mildly put, a bit of a one-off. They were conceived as a sideshow to the world's fair being held that year and operated more like a months-long circus than a sporting event. Several of the disciplines were not what we'd now think of as Olympic – motorcycle racing, ballooning and target shooting (with live pigeons).

But Orton was a purist – a sprinter, miler and middle-distance runner. He won gold in the 2,500-metre steeplechase and took bronze in the 400-metre hurdles. Afterward, he did nothing to publicize his victory. So no one took any notice of it. It wasn't until years later that Canadians realized they'd had an Olympic champion in Paris. Orton lived to 85, but wasn't inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame until two decades after his death.

Orton was apparently unmoved by this lack of celebrity. He returned to live a quiet life, though one of remarkable breadth and accomplishment. He spoke nine languages, founded summer camps, helped establish Philadelphia's playground system, wrote children's books, histories and how-to manuals, competed at the highest level of several team sports into middle age, taught school, coached and was a member of the American Academy of Poets. He was our first notable Olympian, and perhaps the new country's first true renaissance man as well.

Though Orton did most of his good works in and for the United States, the International Olympic Committee considers his ground-breaking medals won for Canada.

Yet when a reporter went back to Strathroy (pop. 21,000) before the recent Sochi Games, few had heard of him. The name rang a few bells, but even the mayor couldn't place it. There are no statues of George Orton or schools named after him or memorials of any substantive kind. He's faded into our history.

In that sense, he may be the emblematic Canadian athlete.

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Historically, we don't celebrate what individuals have done. We valourize the manner in which they did it. Did it express our collective values of honest effort and perseverance? Having managed it, were the winners sufficiently humble? When you take the shouting out of it – which Canada has managed better than anyone else – who won what stops mattering.

One-hundred and fifty years is a good time to stop to admire our accomplishments. The most important of those will be political, social and intellectual, but the most compelling are sporting. They're easier to count and take sole credit for. We did win two world wars, but those were more of a team event.

In sports terms, all told, we've probably punched no more than our weight.

The last time we did this, at the centenary, sports superlatives were a lot thinner on the ground. We considered ourselves the torchbearers of hockey, but were untested against the best of the rest. Canada's defining sports moment – the Summit Series – was still a few years off.

We'd had a couple of good Olympics and a few good Olympians, but their feats had never been broadcast live or in colour and were therefore underappreciated. The greatest of them all at that moment was probably George Hodgson, a swimmer who was another early 20th-century titan you have likely never heard of.

In all major North American professional sports aside from the national game, Canada had contributed sporadically, and never legendarily. Canadian football was at the time a sea-to-sea-to-sea passion, but a necessarily insular one.

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And because we are Canadians, that was all right. We were good enough at the few things we really cared about. It would not have occurred to anyone to waste time wondering when we were going to finally crack our bad streak in the Olympic pool or in trying to force the Russians to concede that Gordie Howe was better than Valeri Kharlamov.

We knew, and that was enough for us.

What others thought of us didn't become a problem until the 1970s. One suspects that it wasn't the shock of nearly losing a best-on-best hockey series to the Soviet Union that did it, but the way just barely winning made everyone feel. Sports as a binding force in Canada? Who knew?

And had we brushed aside the Red Army, would we still be talking about it today? Probably not.

That narrow victory rewired our collective consciousness. Canada's sports raison d'être to that point had been losing with dignity. Now it was winning when we probably shouldn't.

Try to imagine any Canadian athlete – even the most dominant of them – being said to strut into competition. It doesn't happen. Going in, they're all thought to be doubted by someone, usually our neighbours to the south. Often, it's really just us.

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That's not because we haven't produced athletes who were clearly top of class (Cindy Klassen, Donovan Bailey, Ron Turcotte, Hayley Wickenheiser, Wayne Gretzky, et al), but because the idea is antithetical to how we think about ourselves. We're the underdogs.

When we win, it isn't a function of greater gifts, better infrastructure, higher funding or, occasionally, drugs. It's because we have more fight. That's the foundational myth of modern Canadian sports.

This is a country whose most roundly admired sportsperson – Terry Fox – didn't run against another person or a clock. He was his only competition. He did it because it seemed impossible.

Aside from its emotional pull, Fox's story is so resonant in Canada because it perfectly expresses how we would like to see ourselves. We aren't the smirking rock star who gets his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing more medals than some hopped-up Generalissimo. We're the guy running alone along the highway in an inch of snow.

When Canadians start believing we really might be the best at a bunch of things, we will have become Australia. Until then, we prefer to operate on the down low.

Which isn't to say that Canada doesn't enjoy winning. As the world grows more interconnected, Canadian sport has become more plugged in to the mainstream. Over the past half-century, we've contributed top pros in baseball, basketball, U.S. football, auto racing, tennis and golf. At just about anything you can think of now, there is at least one Canadian plugging away in the top ranks. Seeing the red-and-white on a leaderboard still has the ability to surprise and delight us.

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In the 1990s, that new openness became briefly fraught. The few elite athletes we did produce in the individual glamour sports all seemed to want to leave. Somewhere between Lennox Lewis's "I have always been English," Greg Rusedski (once described by the Daily Mail as "a lantern-jawed Canadian oik") and Owen Hargreaves's odd Bavarian-by-way-of-Alberta accent, Canada became a global farm team.

We rediscovered our patriotic bearings in the aughties. Perhaps the person who deserves the most credit for that is Steve Nash.

In those barren pre-Drake days, when no one thought Canada was cool (particularly Canadians), the NBA's unlikely two-time MVP wore the flag like a cape. Nash's vocal zeal for the motherland freed a generation to talk the same way.

Now we've become accustomed to Canadians occasionally poking their heads up on the biggest stages – Mike Weir at the Masters, Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon – before receding again quietly, leaving few ripples in their wake. No one discusses abandoning Canada any more. Instead, they live somewhere warmer with a less onerous tax regime and do their frozen-food commercials here.

Taken as a group, Canadian athletes are better than they have ever been. But the core character hasn't changed much.

That idea stood out at Rio 2016 on the night when the heroine of those Games, swimmer Penny Oleksiak, tied for gold with Simone Manuel of the United States. It was the fifth win of the day for the United States. Canada had four in the whole tournament.

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Afterward, the two were planted on a riser to be interviewed. Nearly every question was directed at Manuel. How had she done it and how did she feel and what did it all mean? Oleksiak, 16, sat there pleasantly twiddling her thumbs.

When she was finally included, Oleksiak stuttered embarrassedly through her answer. Then she quickly shifted the attention back onto her co-winner.

It was a very 'we're happy to live in America's shadow' moment. It was made possible because Oleksiak would have instinctively understood that saying very little would only endear her further to her own country.

It was a nice connection back to Orton's silence after that very first gold. The difference is that now the rest of us take notice.

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