History

UNBROKEN RECORD

Canada’s 1928 Olympic women’s track and field team won the most ever medals

TOM BORESKIE July 19 2004
History

UNBROKEN RECORD

Canada’s 1928 Olympic women’s track and field team won the most ever medals

TOM BORESKIE July 19 2004

UNBROKEN RECORD

History

Canada’s 1928 Olympic women’s track and field team won the most ever medals

TOM BORESKIE

NOBODY HAD expected Percy Williams to win. Following his surprise victory in the 100-m sprint at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, astonished Games officials had to delay his medal presentation while they searched for a Canadian flag. When he repeated his feat in the 200-m race two days later, Williams sparked a nationwide celebration. But the Vancouver sprinter’s triumph was merely a prelude to a more eagerly anticipated international debut by six other athletes. For the first time, Canadian female track stars were to compete at the Olympics, following years of struggle for gender equality at the pinnacle of amateur sport.

In the 1920s, women’s sports were at odds with the prevailing feminine ideal. Sports organizations discouraged female participation,

considering women prone to injury and lacking sufficient stamina and agility. Although the number of female participants in organized sports grew rapidly after the First World War, the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada—the governing body for track and field—had for decades refused to stage women’s events.

At the forefront of the struggle for equity in Canadian sports stood Alexandrine Gibb, an accomplished basketball player from Toronto. When the AAU, caving in to public pressure, agreed to send a women’s track and field team to compete abroad in 1925, it chose Gibb to manage the athletes. An advocate of “girls’ sports run by girls,” Gibb soon

turned her attention to the 1928 Olympics. Canadian women had competed in the Games as early as 1900, initially in such traditional “girl” sports as tennis, golf and croquet, later in swimming and archery—but organizers maintained track and field was too strenuous. In 1912, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, described women’s inclusion in this area as “impractical, uninteresting, ungainly... and improper.” Canadian sports officials such as Arthur Lamb, director of physical education at McGill University in Montreal and the Canadian representative on the International Amateur Athletics Federation, shared those sentiments.

He was one of only a handful opposed when the IAAF voted in favour of including women’s track and field events in the 1928 Olympics. Still, only five such events were held, and Canada would be represented in four of them.

As team manager, Gibb selected six exceptional athletes, called by the press, “The Matchless Six.” They were Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith, Florence (Jane) Bell and Fanny (Bobbie) Rosenfeld—all sprinters from Toronto; Jean Thompson, a middle-distance runner from Penetanguishene, Ont.; and Saskatoon high jumper Ethel Catherwood.

When the women’s competition opened on July 30, 21 nations were represented (46 countries competed in the men’s events), and the Canadians quickly made their presence known. In the 100-m heats, Cook, Smith and Rosenfeld secured three of the six spots in the final. Cook, the only team member with international experience, was the favourite, but nerves got the better of her—after two false starts she was disqualified. When the field finally got away cleanly, Rosenfeld duelled American Elizabeth Robinson to the tape, and it took several agonizing minutes before the judges awarded Robinson the gold. Outraged, Gibb sought to protest the decision, but Olympic team boss Lamb refused, considering a protest unsportsmanlike. Rosenfeld settled for silver, and Smith captured bronze.

The 800-m race generated even more controversy. Runners broke the world record in two of three heats, and Thompson and Rosenfeld placed fourth and fifth in the final. The sight of several women collapsed on the grass following the race—a scene played up in the news coverage—dismayed officials and cast doubt on the future of women’s athletics at the Olympics.

The Canadian women arrived for the last day of competition a determined group, but still without a gold. In the 400-m relay— which Gibb later called “a thriller from the gun to the finish”-they led through the first two exchanges, narrowly averting disaster on the last pass when Cook took off early and only just handled Bell’s pass. Finally displaying her form, Cook outran Robinson, and the team broke the world record by 1.4 seconds. Later, in the high jump competition, Catherwood cleared the bar at 1.59 m to win gold. By Games end, the Canadians,

with two golds, one silver and one bronze, compiled the best overall record of any women’s team.

After the Games, with the scene following the 800-m race uppermost in their minds, the IAAF considered the future of women in Olympics competition. While the athletic body came down in favour of women’s track and field events as a permanent Games feature, there was one glaring exception. There would be no more 800-m races for women at the Olympics until 1960. But since that time, truly gruelling sports such as rowing, the marathon and triathalon have been opened up to the so-called fairer sex.

The Matchless Six returned to a heroines’ welcome. A crowd of 200,000 lined a parade route beginning at Toronto’s Union

Station to greet them following their boat and rail trip home. But none of the six went to another Olympics, and all of them had retired from competition within five years. Gibb, Cook and Rosenfeld went on to become prominent journalists, promoting women’s sports for many years. Wrote Gibb in Maclean’s later in 1928: “I firmly believe our success will do more to boost women’s competitive athletics in Canada than anything in the history of Canadian women’s athletics.” In 1955, the five gold medallists (the relay team and Catherwood) were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Today, the Matchless Six continue to live up to their name: their Olympic medal performance has yet to be equalled by any Canadian women’s track and field team. fll