You can listen to this episode on my podcast Canadian History Ehx.
Many athletes through Canadian history have conquered adversity in some way to find success. Terry Fox is the most famous example, but there are many others, including a man by the name of George Orton.
Today when someone from our country wins a gold medal, they receive a hero’s welcome back home. We all learn their name and they are all over the news.
For George Orton, the first Olympian champion from Canada, no one really knew he ever won anything until after his death.
Born in Strathroy, Ontario in 1873 to Mary and Oliver, the family would only briefly live in the community before the family moved to Winchester in 1875.
Orton would suffer a terrible injury as a toddler when he fell out of a tree at the age of three, leaving him paralyzed with a blood clot to the brain. His right arm was severely damaged in the fall and he would spend most of his childhood on the mend.
It was not until he was 10 that he could walk again, and he did not have mobility again until he was 12.
This didn’t stop him, and a big part of his growing ability to walk and run comes thanks to his father.
In order to nurture strength and mobility in his legs, his father made George walk behind the horse and buggy on his way to school, as far as he was able to, each day.
In 1889, George attended Guelph Collegiate Institute, whee he had the nickname “The boy who never walked” due to his habit of running constantly.
Orton described his transformation as such, “At the age of eight, I seemed to come suddenly out of a dream. From that day onward, I was always wanting to run.”
Years later, George would speak about his time as a young man, running everywhere.
“I guess I am a product of my own ambition. I began to run when a boy and used to race with all the boys my age in my Canadian home. I found many would could best me at the dashes, but as soon as the route became long, I killed off my adherents.”
By the age of 20, he had earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto in Romance Languages. During his time at the University of Toronto, he set a mile record of 4:21.8, which would last for 42 years.
In 1893, he was offered a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania, allowing him to earn his Master’s and PhD. It was also the same year he won a track championship at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Through all of this, he had begun running and was the top middle-distance runner in the world by the time he graduated. In addition to being one of the youngest doctorates from the university, he could also speak nine languages.
In 1899, he would marry Edith Martin and have two daughters and a step-daughter with her. The marriage would not end well when he was sued for desertion by her in 1931, and the couple would officially divorce in 1932.
In 1900, Orton would compete in the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. He would represent the United States because athletes at that time did not represent their birth country. They ran as individuals or part of a university, as Orton did. The Olympics of that year were very different from today. Considered a minor event compared to the World’s Fair going on the same year in Paris, some of the events included cricket, fire-fighting, angling, cannon-firing, wild boar shooting and a game of tag where the person who is “it” being blindfolded.
The courses for runners were anything but professional as well. Organizers had marked out a 500 metre oval in the grass at a horse-racing circuit, and it had several dips and mounds and even an uphill portion through a grove of trees. With the trees, spectators searched for a better view and would accidentally interfere with the race itself.
Orton would be competing in two steeplechase competitions and the 400 metre hurdles, he would win bronze in the 400 metre, and follow that 45 minutes later, while suffering from an intestinal virus, with a gold medal in the 2500 metre steeplechase, setting a world record.
Orton would say later, “I was running fourth, and seemed to be out of the race. About 300 yards from home, I seemed to realize that I was in the race for which I had come 4,000 miles.”
One interesting aspect of this is that when I say he won gold, he didn’t actually win gold. Medals were not awarded at the 1900 Olympics, competitors just finished first, second or third.
This would technically make him the first Canadian to win a gold medal, even though he was representing the United States. Over 70 years later, the IOC would remove his medals from the US tally and add them to the Canadian tally. His medal also made him the first disabled athlete to win a medal since his arm was dead, which he often hid during most of his career.
He would be the last Canadian to win two medals in track events on the same day until Marita Payne, a relay runner, repeated the feat in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
King Leopold II would give Orton a special award for his running achievements, skill and sportsmanship.
After coming back to Canada though, there was no celebration, and no big welcome.
Running wasn’t the only sport where Orton excelled. While in Toronto at school, he helped to form the first hockey team in the city, and played soccer in the Toronto Football League.
During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he would become known as the Father of Philadelphia Hockey since he introduced the sport to the city in 1896, and would captain the first team at Penn State. Not only that, he also was responsible for the building of the first indoor ice arena in the city. He would found the Philadelphia Hockey League in 1897, and in 1898, he formed the Quaker City Hockey Club, a team that played in the American Amateur Hockey League.
Orton would eventually become the track coach at Penn State and wrote Distance and Cross Country Running, the definite training manual at the time for runners, in 1903. He also wrote a book on the history of Penn Athletics, and was the manager of the Penn Relays from 1919 to 1925. He would help make it the greatest annual track and field competition in the world. The Pennsylvania Relay Carnival would be a huge success, and after the 20,000th child participated in the event, Orton was presented with a silver baton.
By the end of his career, he would win a then-record 17 national titles in the United States, seven in Canada and one in the United Kingdom. In addition, he won the U.S. one-mile championship six times, the two-mile steeplechase seven times, the cross-country championship twice. He would compete in 131 races, winning 33 national and international championships.
It is no surprise he was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, as well as the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame and University of Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. Oddly, even though he is from Guelph, there is no picture of him on the mall gallery of Guelph’s Sports Hall of Fame. He is inducted as a legend in the London Sports Hall of Fame.
Orton would pass away at the age of 85 in Meredith, New Hampshire.
One of the tragedies of Orton is that his birth country never recognized his achievements during his life, since he spent so much of his adulthood in America. It would be years, not until 1977, before his citizenship would be revealed, and the realization that he was indeed the first Canadian Olympic champion.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Torontoist, Guelph Mercury, MacLeans, Literary Review of Canada,