Canada’s first Olympic gold-medalist

George Orton

George Orton

On the official Olympic Games website, there are two records concerning George Orton at the Paris Olympics in 1900. The records show he won a bronze medal in the 400-metre men’s hurdles and a gold medal in the 3000-metre steeplechase. The records note his country as Canada, making George Orton the first Canadian to win Olympic gold. The Canadian Olympic Association regards Orton as the first Canadian Olympic medalist. But Canada did not send a team to the Olympics in 1900 (Canada had no Olympic team until 1904 at the St. Louis, Missouri games). Orton, a student, competed as part of the University of Pennsylvania contingent. Because he was entered as an American athlete, it was not until years later that anyone realized that a Canadian had won an Olympic competition.
We may debate the attribution of a medal won in such a circumstance. If an athlete runs for another country, does the medal belong to the team’s country or the individual’s country? Although at the time Orton’s was considered an American victory, it would have been a moot question in 1900, as the requirement for athletes to belong to national teams was not established until the 1908 games in London. Athletes competed as individuals or as members of clubs. Athletes from different countries joined forces in team sports and their totals were listed as “combined.” However, there were no medals awarded; gold, silver and bronze medals were not initiated until the 1904 games. Competitors finished first, second or third. So, while Orton placed first, he didn’t win a gold medal on the day he won his race.
Further confusing the matter of winners is the observation that many athletes were uncertain that they were competing in the Olympic Games. The Olympic events were held concurrently with the Paris World’s Fair, spread out over five months, and were run along with non-Olympic events. It seemed a good idea at the time to host the Olympics in the City of Light when the city would be shining brightest, but the plan was an unmitigated disaster. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, later remarked that it was “a miracle the Olympic movement survived these Games.” The Olympic events, represented by the French government as a sideshow of the World’s Fair, were a fiasco of planning and execution. Fair organizers were not keen on the Olympics and the word Olympic didn’t even appear on the event programs. In effect, the 1900 Paris Olympic Games were the games that barely were.
In this chaotic environment, George Orton of Strathroy, Ontario, an astounding athlete proficient in several sports, ran his track events on an uneven field in the Paris suburb of Bois de Boulogne. He went to the Olympics as a track star, with 121 victories to his credit, including 15 American championships. He was also a soccer star, a hockey player, an author and a student of languages — he completed his PhD in romance languages in 1896 and became fluent in nine languages. Orton was a sports pioneer; his approach to running was methodical and academic, applying scientific study to training. The author of numerous books and articles about the technicalities of running, he is regarded as the most scientific student of middle-distance running.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is associate editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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