Canada at the London Summer games—in 1908

In 1908, Canada's first Olympic national team managed to win 16 medals and take fifth place in the standings

When the 2012 Summer Games begin July 27, about 300 Canadian athletes and coaches will follow the Maple Leaf flag into London’s Olympic Stadium to join 10,000 other athletes, 80,000 spectators and the Royal Family for the opening ceremony.

It’s a far cry from the first time Canadian athletes marched into an Olympic opening ceremony as a national team. That was also in London, back in 1908 for the Games of the IV Olympiad.

But the flag they marched behind then was the Red Ensign, and only about two dozen members of the 87-man Canadian team (there were no women until1928) participated in the opening ceremony at the half-empty Great White City Stadium in Shepherds Bush, 15 km west of the site of today’s Olympic Stadium.

(Events for the 1908 Olympics were staggered over a three-month period between April 27 and Oct. 31, so there was never a time when the entire Canadian Olympic team was together.)

The Canadians wore white uniforms for the 1908 opening ceremony, each with a schoolboy cap and sports jersey emblazoned with a red maple leaf over the heart. The flag and the uniforms were the most visible elements of very limited support provided by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government back in Ottawa.

This year the federal government is pumping about $34.5 million into its Own The Podium support programme for summer Olympic sports.

With that backing, the Canadian Olympic Committee hopes our athletes will bring home about 20 medals from London — enough to (hopefully) boost Canada’s Olympic ranking to 12th, up from the 14th spot achieved with 18 medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But back in 1908 Canada’s few dozen Olympic athletes—true amateurs mostly supported by their hometown athletic clubs and sporting patrons—were able to win 16 medals and take fifth place in the standings behind host Great Britain, the U.S., Sweden and France.

Those medals included 10 bronze, three silver and three gold. The gold went to Canada’s lacrosse team, trapshooter Walter Ewing, and sprinter Robert Kerr in the 200M.

The lacrosse team was repeat Olympic champion, but it would have been impossible for the Canadians to finish out of the medals in lacrosse—only two nations had teams entered in 1908. Britain ended up with silver when Canada won the single Oct. 24 game 14-10.

(There would have been three teams entered — and thus a bronze medal awarded — but South Africa decided not to send a team shortly before the 1908 Games began. Lacrosse was dropped as an Olympic sport after
1908, although it reappeared as a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1932 and 1948 Games.)

Runner Bobby Kerr was a Hamilton, Ont., firefighter who had set Canadian track records before heading off to the London Olympics. There he ran third in the 100M before coming back the next day to take
gold in the 200M race. When news of Kerr’s victory reached Hamilton by telegraph, the town erupted in celebration. No riots, just celebration.

But the athlete who was expected to be one of Canada’s shining stars at the 1908 Olympics did not even finish his event.

Tom Longboat, born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, had won the 1907 Boston Marathon in record time and was considered the best North American distance runner of his day.

Longboat was joined by 11 other Canadians at the starting line of the 1908 Olympic marathon on the grounds of Windsor Castle. The Canadian contingent was the largest national group among the 55 runners who
began the July 24 race (there were 11 British runners and seven Americans) and several other Canadians were in the top echelon of distance runners in that era.

But Longboat was the star. He was at the head of the pack through the first half of the race but started feeling ill and was in second place when, on the verge of collapse, he dropped out near the Mile 20 marker.

Allegations immediately began circulating that Longboat had been drugged by gamblers trying to fix the race, but it was likely just heat exhaustion and bad luck: Half the runners did not complete the
course that hot, muggy day, and the initial winner—Italian Dorando Pietri—was disqualified when, delirious and staggering, he was
helped across the finish line by two officials (while Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame looked on).

Canadians William Wood, Fred Simpson and Harry Lawson did finish fifth, sixth and seventh respectively—out of the medals but still a strong showing. A few months later, the cream of the Olympic marathoners reassembled at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Longboat outran everyone, including Pietri.

(By the way, the 1908 Olympic marathon distance from Windsor Castle to the finish line in front of the royal box at White City Stadium—26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 km—was adopted in 1921 as the official distance of Olympic marathons. Before that, the distance bounced all over the place.)

So how will Canada’s 300 athletes fare in their pursuit of the COC’s stated goal of 20 medals at the 2012 Summer Games compared to the 16 medals brought home from London by 87 Canadians in 1908?

Granted, this year’s competition involves five times as many Olympic athletes from 10 times as many nations compared to those first London Games. But there are about three times as many competition events now
and three times as many medals to be handed out (more than 900 medals expected this year compared to the 323 awarded in 1908).

Statistically, that means the current crop of Canada’s Olympic athletes has a better chance of winning 20 medals than the Canadian corps had of winning 16 in 1908.

Now it’s up to the individual athletes to determine whether the 2012 Olympics have a Bobby Kerr ending or a Tom Longboat ending for Canada.

See also: Photographs of Canada’s 1908 Olympic team .

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