Historicist: Canada's First Olympic Gold
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Historicist: Canada’s First Olympic Gold

A Canadian-born athlete won the country's first Olympic gold medal in Paris in 1900, but no one realized.

toronto george orton

George Orton, second row, third from left, won gold for the United States as part of a team from the University of Pennsylvania. Photo from University of Pennsylvania Archives Digital Image Collection, UARC20020129001.

George Orton probably never knew he won Canada’s first Olympic gold medal.

The talented, record-setting Ontario-born runner claimed first place in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the 1900 Paris Games. Later the same day, he took third in the 400-metre men’s hurdles. Both feats were achieved as an American.

Orton was competing on the United States team in a squad of track athletes from the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until decades later that Orton was recognized as this country’s first gold medalist.

Paris was just the second city in the modern era to host an Olympics and the event was structured and organized very differently to the Games now underway in Rio de Janeiro.

Most importantly, the 1900 Paris Olympics were held as part of a World’s Fair. The Exposition Universelle, which ran between April and November, showcased several world firsts: Russian dolls, the escalator, diesel engines, and talking movies.

The first line of the Paris Metro opened to the public at the height of the exposition.

The spectacle of the Exposition Universelle on the city’s Champ de Mars entirely overshadowed the Olympics. As Jack Batten notes in Canada at the Olympics, the advertising for the Paris games did not use the word Olympics and events were held over several months.

That year the Olympic sports, which were held in Vincennes, included cricket, rugby, golf, baseball, and polo alongside a strange mix of other activities, such as fire-fighting, angling, cannon-firing, wild boar shooting, and blind man’s bluff—a form of tag where the person who is “it” is blindfolded.

Instead of medals, people who finished first, second, and third in their events were awarded tie pins and pencils. Winners also received a gift of 100 francs from of which they could buy their own trophies or medals, though, as Batten notes, few did.

The modern Olympics were the product of decades of fervent efforts to revive the ancient Games, which died out with the Roman invasion of Greece in 146 BC.

Greek poet Soutous and wealthy landowner and veteran Evangelis Zappas lobbied King Otto I to commission an Olympics in the 1840s and 1850s, and were eventually successful when Otto announced Games to be held in August 1859.

At the same time, inspired by Soutous and Zappas, English doctor W. P. Brookes created and sponsored the Annual Wenlock Olympian Games in his home village of Much Wenlock in July 1859, two months before the Athens event.

According to David C. Young in his book A Brief History of the Olympic Games, the 1859 Athens event was far from a resounding success: No provisions were made for crowd accommodation and at least one athlete died during a race.

Otto I was deposed in 1862 and the wealthy Zappas died in 1865 before he could organize a repeat of the event.

As Young notes, Zappas’ bizarre will stipulated his body was to be exhumed after four years and its head severed. The remains below the neck were to be interred at his home in Romania and the head placed on display in a new Olympic building his estate would finance in Athens.

His wish was fulfilled behind schedule in 1888, and Zappas’ head remains on display today above a commemorative plaque.

toronto george orton olympics

An aerial depiction of the Exposition Universelle, 1900. Though it was billed as a World’s Fair, the Paris event also included a disjointed and disorganized Olympics. Photo from the United States Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-15645.

In the meantime, proto versions of the modern Games were variously held in Britain and Greece throughout the 1860s, 70s, and 80s.

In the 1890s, French aristocrat and academic Baron Pierre de Coubertin became interested in W. P. Brooks’s U.K. version of the Games and convened a meeting of international delegates at the Sorbonne in 1894, which resulted in the formation of what is now the International Olympic Committee.

Coubertin was inspired by the belief that society’s ills could be cured through regular physical activity, and under his leadership the IOC organized their first Games in Athens in 1896, despite many in the IOC favouring London as the host city.

Though the weather was poor, the Athens Games was a huge success, attracting more than 300 competitors from countries around the world and crowds of 40,000 spectators.

Immediately following the event, the King of Greece lobbied the IOC to hold all future Olympics in Athens. Coubertin, however, had already begun planning the Paris event and the Games wouldn’t officially return to Greece until 2004.

Unfortunately, doctor W. P. Brookes—Coubertin’s inspiration for the Olympics—died three months before the Athens games, “joining Soutous and Zappas in Olympic oblivion—as Coubertin and history forgot all about them,” writes David C. Young.

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George Orton (centre) joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1893 and was heavily active in a variety track sports, in particular running. Photo from the University of Pennsylvania Archives Digital Image Collection, UARC20051013057.

Canadian George Orton was born in Strathroy, Ontario, in 1873 at a time when the Olympic Games were still in an embryonic phase.

At some point during his early childhood, Orton was seriously injured and, according to some accounts, partially paralyzed. It was through doctor-ordered physical activity he discovered his talent for running.

As a young adult, Orton studied at the University of Toronto and competed in events across Canada and the United States, often in the half-mile and full mile categories.

He first ran as a member of the West End YMCA (now the Great Hall at Queen and Dovercourt streets,) the same venue that nurtured renowned Onondaga long-distance runner Cogwagee, who was also known by his English name, Tom Longboat.

While living on Ontario Street in Toronto, Orton set a Canadian record that remained unbroken for 30 years in the one-mile distance at Varsity Stadium, completing the course in 4 minutes 21.04 seconds.

According to the University of Pennsylvania, George Orton graduated U of T with a double honours in modern languages and entered the U.S. college to study romance languages in 1893. That same year, he won a track championship at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

A talented linguist, Orton earned a master’s in 1894 and a PhD in 1896, eventually becoming fluent in nine languages. He was captain of the university’s track team in 1895 and 1897 and a teacher in the Philadelphia area before going to Paris as part of a University of Pennyslvania squad in 1900.

He didn’t have much choice to compete as an American. Canada did not assemble an Olympic team until 1904.

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Orton crossing the finish line to claim first place in the 1,000-metre steeplechase. He didn’t know it, but Orton had just become Canada’s first Olympic champion. Photo from University of Pennsylvania Archives Digital Image Collection, UARC20060302001.

“The 1900 Olympic Games are perhaps the most unusual Olympics in modern history,” writes Bill Malon, author of a collection of results from that year’s event, which was published in 1998.

“The 1900 Olympic Games were poorly organized, almost chaotic. Years later many of the competitors had no idea they had actually competed in the Olympics, but only that they had competed in an international sporting competition in Paris in 1900.”

In Paris there was no opening or closing ceremony, awards for victories were handed out inconsistently and, according to Malon, it could be argued that no Olympics took place at all so loose was the organization and structure.

The 1900 Games were, however, the first to include women. Lawn tennis, golf, croquet, yachting, ballooning, and equestrian sports all allowed women to compete. Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain became the first woman to win Olympic gold in singles and mixed doubles tennis.

Looking back, most of the confusion around the Paris Games centres on which events were considered officially “Olympic.” Though today’s International Olympic Committee recognizes that an Olympics took place, no one at the time specifically stipulated which events were Olympic and which were showcased as part of the Exposition Universelle.

Decades after the event, the IOC reviewed the records of the Paris event and selected the competitions that fit the ideology of later Games. Specifically, events that included any kind of a handicap or motorized vehicle were disqualified. Likewise, only events that were open to international amateur competitors were retained.

Almost all of Orton’s exploits at the Games were either never recorded or lost. We know, however, that Orton placed first in the 3,000-metre steeplechase and, later the same day, took third in the 400-metre men’s hurdles.

Because Orton’s events were later designated as officially Olympic, he was retroactively awarded a gold and a bronze by the IOC, though he almost certainly never actually received any medals (unless he purchased one himself from his 100-franc prize.)

Another Canadian, Ronald J. McDonald also competed in Paris as part of the U.S. team. The Nova Scotian-born marathon runner didn’t finish in a medal position, however his event was later also recognized as officially being part of the Olympics.

Orton’s pair of medals helped the United States cement second in the medal table with a total of 48 across all sports. France, however, dominated, winning 109 medals.

After Paris, Orton returned to Pennsylvania and held a number of prominent sport-related roles, including director of athletics for Philadelphia’s Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in 1926 and director of Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium from 1928 to 1934.

He also wrote a history of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania and generally devoted himself to improving the pursuit of athletic excellence. In 1914, for example, he came up with the idea of marking the long jump pit like a ruler to speed up measuring times.

Orton died in June 1958 likely unaware he was Canada’s first Olympic champion.

Additional material from “The Great Exhibitions,” John Allwood, 1977; “A Brief History of the Olympic Games,” David C. Young, 2004; The 1900 Olympic Games: Results for All Competitors in All Events with Commentary,” Bill Malon, 1998; the April 29, 1899, September 9, 1911, April 4, 1914, and June 9, 1954 editions of the Globe and Mail; September 15, 1959 edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

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