Two summers ago, I drove to Utica, New York, for my favourite road race. As I was picking up my bib, I happened to meet one of my heroes, the four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers. He noticed the Capricorn tattoo on my right arm and fancied a chat. I couldn’t believe my luck — Boston Billy is also a Capricorn. When Rodgers learned I had come down from Toronto, the conversation took a turn. All he wanted to talk about was Tom Longboat.
Born in 1887, the Onondaga runner from Six Nations of the Grand River, in Ontario, was a dominant force in athletics. He was virtually untouchable between 1906 and 1912, winning major races throughout Canada and the United States and setting numerous national and world records in the process. Before he served in the First World War, the Bulldog of Britannia represented Canada at the 1908 Olympics, where he collapsed in the marathon because of the heat. He turned pro the following year — a decision that polite society frowned upon.
Longboat is a modern-day idol, and not just to me and Bill Rodgers. One of the larger running groups in Toronto is named after him, Canada Post put him on a stamp in 2000, and two years ago even Google celebrated his legacy with a Doodle. But despite how we remember him, despite his accomplishments on the track and on the roads, the press didn’t exactly lionize Longboat at the time. “He hated to train,” Maclean’s wrote long ago, “and he was a fool with his money.” Many saw Longboat as a lazy, dim-witted natural talent gone to waste. “He made his own decisions about training, racing and the conduct of his life,” Bruce Kidd wrote in 1983. “The criticism he received was a measure of his independence and self-determination.”
In her new book, Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous Self-Determination in Canadian Sport, Janice Forsyth describes the runner as a “tragic hero,” whose reputation largely hinged “on the desires and prejudices of writers who fused together ideas about nation, race, masculinity, and class to create a composite picture that barely resembled the man.” Her title notwithstanding, Forsyth focuses not on Longboat but on the athletic prize the Department of Indian Affairs created in his name, in 1951. Originally designed “as a tool for Indigenous assimilation,” the annual Tom Longboat Awards are now administered by the non-profit Aboriginal Sport Circle and have been gradually transformed “into a symbol of cultural pride.” By better understanding that often rocky transformation, Canada can better support Indigenous athletes — something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified as imperative with five of its ninety-four calls to action.
Throughout Reclaiming Tom Longboat, Forsyth dismantles a “widespread belief in the apolitical nature of sport” and shows how generations of athletes — from students in residential schools to men and women of today, on reserve and off — have had to defy racially inflected barriers in order to compete on their own terms. It’s an extension of the wider prejudices and bias that many continue to deny even exists.
“It would be helpful to have some more details,” Rex Murphy wrote in the National Post, on June 1, as he cavalierly dismissed recent statements by Justin Trudeau, Catherine McKenna, and many others who have acknowledged the racism and discrimination that shape Canadian society today. “Where do they manifest themselves?” he asked.
Reclaiming Tom Longboat is one of many texts that skeptics like Murphy might consult for answers. Indeed, North America tends to celebrate athletes of colour who adopt dominant assumptions about performance, competition, and comportment — on the field of play and off. North America tends to use sports as “collateral for teaching obedience,” as Forsyth puts it. North America tends to link athletics to the most emotionally charged symbols of nationhood — the flag, the flyover, the anthem. All the while, too much of North America still has a problem when an athlete of colour makes his or her own decisions, speaks out, kneels down, or runs through the wrong neighbourhood.
I won’t be driving down to Utica this summer, and none of us will be competing in road races for a while. But we can all spend time acknowledging and talking about uncomfortable truths made even more urgent by the injustices that are once again rocking communities throughout the United States and Canada.