Tom Longboat

For a fleeting moment in Canadian history Tom Longboat was Canada’s most famous athlete—the most honoured and feted since the great oarsman Ned Hanlan.

After a surprise victory at a race at Calendon in 1906, another Six Nations runner, Bill Davis, began to prepare him for the Hamilton Round-the-Bay race in 1906. Tom took some ribbing before the race for his cheap sneakers and awkward running style. The favourite was famed English marathoner John Marsh. Tom used Marsh as a pacesetter, locking onto his heels; the moment Marsh faltered he cut loose and left the Englishman in his dust.

The Toronto West End YMCA saw Longboat’s potential, gave him a room and set about training him for the world’s most famous race, the Boston Marathon. After a number of other victories, word reached Boston about the young runner and his arrival was much anticipated. The rain and sleet on the day of the race, April 19, 1907, added to the challenge of the old, tortuous course. At the 22-mile point Tom found himself running step for step with another Canadian, Charlie Patch. When Patch hesitated on one of the long hills Tom was gone, winning the race in the record time of 2:24:24 hours—a record that was never broken on the old course.

On his return to Toronto, Longboat was greeted by a huge crowd at the Union Station and was carried in a torchlight parade to City Hall. He was draped in the flag, given a gold medal and $500 for his education, and flattering with speeches and the attention of adoring fans. Tom made the “whole world ring with the name Canada,” trumpeted the Toronto Globe.

The sentiments were genuine, but they were always tempered by the fact that Tom was Native. While singing his praises the newspapers condescendingly hoped that he would not prove “obstinate” or “unmanageable.” He was soon suspended from the YMCA for a curfew violation but Tom was glad of it, since the Y reminded him too much of the paternalistic Anglican boarding school he had fled in Brantford. Two sharp Irish promoters, Tom Flanagan and Jim O’Rourke moved in and promised him Olympic gold and all the fame and fortune that would follow. The American Amateur Athletic Union was worried enough about Tom that it declared him “professional” and therefore ineligible to run in Boston again or in the upcoming Olympic Games.

Somehow Longboat got passed the Olympic committee and competed at the London Olympics in 1908. He took an early lead but fell behind in the scorching heat. Inside the stadium, an incredible drama unfolded as well-meaning officials disqualified the fainting Dorando Pietri by helping him across the line, leaving American Johnny Hayes the winner. Outside Longboat quit the race after 19 miles. Rumours flew that he had been doped by Flanagan, who supposedly had bet $100,000 on his defeat.

The drama of the Olympic marathon created an immense market for long-distance running. Petri and Hayes turned pro and ran a rematch, won by the Italian Pietri, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The success of the race left the promoters clamouring for a race with Longboat. He had redeemed himself after his Olympic disappointment with a flurry of victories. He turned professional and agreed to race Pietri in Madison Square Garden on 15 December 1908. Longboat literally ran Pietri into the ground as the Italian staggered and collapsed with a half mile to go.

In February 1909 Longboat began his famous rivalry with the English runner Alfie Scrubb. The two men ran the “race of the century” before 12,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden. Scrubb led by such a large margin at one point that the crowd booed the Canadian. But Longboat gradually won back the laps and swept past Scrubb in one of his now famous finishing kicks.

Longboat quit racing in 1913 and served as a brigade runner in France during World War I. He was falsely reported killed and his wife remarried. On his return to Canada he worked in odd jobs, winding up as a labourer on a Toronto garbage wagon. Tom Longboat always posed a perplexing challenge to the racist climate of his time, which was quick to pounce on his “demise” and blame it on his heritage. He was dogged in his life by the belief that he lost his fame to alcohol, yet there was no evidence that he was an alcoholic in his military career or his employment. His job was not a disgrace to himself, for he was able to provide for his family. “I’ve had my day, no regrets,” he later told a reporter who saw him sweeping the streets. He died back on the Ohsweken Reserve in 1949.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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