It was an accident of viral fate that drew Roger Jackson into a gold medal in Tokyo in 1964, making him a champion at an Olympics that has reverberated through the ensuing decades of Canadian amateur sport. In many ways, it prepared the country for its return to Japan this year.
Jackson had spent the summer of 1964 preparing for pair’s rowing at the Olympics. Then fellow rower George Hungerford fell sick with mononucleosis. Though Hungerford recovered enough to return to the water, coaches deemed him too weak to join the men’s eight in Tokyo. Instead, they put him together with Jackson. The two landed in Japan without ever having raced together. “The first Olympics heat we were in was our first race,” Hungerford recalls.
They walked away champions.
That same day, sprinter Harry Jerome raced to bronze in the 100 metres in what was dubbed Canada’s “finest Olympics day in 28 years.” The following day, Doug Rogers won silver in judo, a sport then making its Olympic debut, with Emperor Hirohito looking on. Bill Crothers added a silver in the 800 metres, sealing Canada’s best track performance since 1936 and bringing Canada’s final medal count to four.
But in many ways, the legacy of Canada’s 1964 Olympians came not in Tokyo, but in the ensuing decades of advocacy, leadership and admonitions against sexist language that reconfigured the architecture of sport in Canada – and the place of women in it.
A small group of 1964 athletes used their success to bring money and inspiration to those who followed, including a far larger delegation competing under the maple leaf in Japan today, with far larger ambitions.
Canada had come into the first Tokyo Games an Olympic weakling. In 1960, it won a single silver, placing it in a seven-way tie with Ghana and others for 32nd in the medal table, despite being the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Four years later, the entire Canadian delegation to Tokyo, including athletes and officials, numbered 131 – a sixth the size of this year’s contingent – and included a single doctor who “was a tropical medicine specialist,” Crothers recalls. “There was one trainer for the whole Olympic team.” At the time, even Toronto could only count two or three indoor running tracks, surfaced in concrete and wood.
But the athletic mood in Canada was already changing. In 1961, a new federal act had committed Ottawa to pushing forward amateur sport, and over the next few years, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker called for federal funding of Canadian athletes. The country was tired of Olympic “embarrassment, which turns to scorn of our representatives when we do not carry off honours,” the prime minister said.
For an example of what needed to change, he pointed to Harry Jerome. Canada’s best-known track star had burnished his skills not at home, but in Oregon, where he had gone to university to secure top-flight training.
Ottawa appointed champion skier Nancy Greene (who won gold and silver in Grenoble in 1968) to a task force, alongside an oil executive and a physiologist, with orders to figure out how to make Canada better at international sport. Their work led to the formation of Hockey Canada and pushed the government to invest more heavily in elite athletes and top-flight training centres.
In 1970, when Montreal was awarded the 1976 Olympics, pressure grew for Ottawa to make good on its promises. By then, Jackson was Olympic royalty, chosen as flag-bearer at the Mexico City Games in 1968. He was hired as the technical director of Sport Canada, a federal body created for the purposes of pouring money and support into athletes. “It was a sea change in how the federal government ran sport,” says Jackson, who reached out to the elite of Canadian athletics to help.
Among those who raised their hands was Jerome. “He had a ton of ideas about why federal policies and programs weren’t anywhere near as good as they could be,” Jackson says. Funding was high on the list. “If he was annoyed about anything, it was the fact that as a world-class athlete at that time, there was almost zero financial opportunity,” he says. “There just wasn’t any money.”
The early days of Sport Canada earned a reputation for being a profligate mess, with a budget that nearly doubled between 1974 and 1976 alone. But it brought major change: long-term funding for national governing bodies, better pay for coaches, a more robust competition schedule, a carded athlete program that still today provides tax-free cash to competitors in Olympic sports. “Those really were the golden years of development of the sports system in Canada,” Jackson says.
Jerome offered not just ideas, but himself. He roamed Canada with javelin thrower William Heikkila, “putting on sport demonstration projects at community fairs throughout the summertime in order to attract youngsters to amateur sport,” Jackson recalls. “He was really, really committed to youth development.”
Few could inspire like Jerome, whose decade of elite performance marked him as one of Canada’s greatest athletes, a Black man pelted with rocks as a child who had been branded a quitter after enduring a horrific muscle rupture in his right leg. Nonetheless, he spent eight years as a joint world-record holder in the 100 metres.
Canada won 11 medals in Montreal, an achievement overshadowed by the national shame of failing to secure a single gold. The government decided it was time to hand the reins of amateur sport to athletes rather than bureaucrats. It placed Jackson in charge of Sport Canada.
He stayed for two years before moving to Alberta, where he led the kinesiology department at the University of Calgary while shepherding the city’s 1988 Olympic bid. When that succeeded, he began seven years at the helm of the Canadian Olympic Association.
At the same time, other 1964 Olympians were busy remaking women’s sport in ways that have arguably won Canada the greatest dividends, as women dominate in summer Olympics medals. By the end of Friday’s events, Canada had 12 medals at Tokyo 2020, all earned by women.
Swimmer Marion Lay and runner Abby Hoffman – who were both in Tokyo but missed the podium – spent decades insisting on athletic equity, working inside government-backed organizations to effect change and even reforming the language of sport.
At the Albertville Games in 1992, Lay handed reporters a kit warning against certain adjectives for women. There was no place for “emotional, moody, shapely, cute, charming, well-built or bouncy.”
Lay, a founder of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity, would go on to be an early leader of the Vancouver Olympics bid.
The outspoken Hoffman, meanwhile, had been so angry over Canadian sports funding that, before flying to Tokyo in 1964, she declared she was running for herself, not for the country. By the 1980s, she had followed Jackson as Canada’s most powerful athletic administrator, head of Sport Canada, where she fought doping and petitioned cabinet for money that would become the “Best Ever” program. It poured $25-million into making medal-winners out of bobsledders and biathletes at the Calgary Olympics. What Canadians “don’t want to see is Canadians at the back of the pack,” Hoffman said in 1988. Canada won just two silver and three bronze medals in Calgary.
That same desire drove Bill Crothers to help education authorities transform a Markham, Ont., golf course into a specialized institution to nurture young athletes. It uses a modified class schedule and a flexible approach to remote study to give students the freedom to travel and compete. It’s called Bill Crothers Secondary School, and it stands as one of the most direct connections between the Olympics in 1964 and today. Six of its alumni are in Tokyo this year, including swimmer Joshua Liendo – modern-day Olympians brought up in a place that owes its existence to Canada’s sporting past. “Had I not been involved in the Olympics,” Crothers says, “the idea certainly wouldn’t have surfaced.”
In British Columbia, too, Jerome’s mark on Canadian sport remains fresh, though he died of a brain aneurysm in 1982, at the age of 42. The Harry Jerome International Track Classic is the country’s longest-running track and field event. This year, it hosted one of the few pandemic competitions where Canadian athletes could qualify for the Tokyo Games.
And the country’s top sporting institutions continue to bear the imprint of Jerome’s generation.
When Vancouver won its bid for the 2010 Olympics, Ottawa once again found itself in need of athletic glory at home. It called on Jackson to be the first chief executive of Own the Podium, whose heavy spending buttressed Canada’s record gold-medal haul of 14 in Vancouver. He calls Own The Podium, which uses technical analysis and high-performance programming, “the next big sea change” in Canadian sport.
It is, Jackson says, the embodiment of what the first Tokyo Olympians sought to build in Canada – “exactly what Harry would have wished for.”
A further flashback: The Olympics of 1912
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