The little-known story of Canada’s original gold medal champion

The 1900 Paris Olympics were an odd beast. Not only did they span five months, unfolding simultaneously...

  • Mar. 3, 2017 10:00 a.m.
George Orton

George Orton

By Black Press staff

The 1900 Paris Olympics were an odd beast. Not only did they span five months, unfolding simultaneously with the Paris World’s Fair, but they also lacked some fundamental elements of the Games as we know them today. Indeed, neither medals nor national teams were part of the equation; participants competed for independent teams, and winners received only a title. Nevertheless, an Olympiad did take place in Pierre de Coubertin’s homeland that year, and it was the scene of a milestone moment in Canadian history—although no one really knew it at the time.

George Orton, who was born and raised in Strathroy, Ontario, spent part of his childhood paralyzed from an injury. He was able to regain full mobility thanks to a rigorous exercise regimen, and never stopped training. By the time he started his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, Orton was one of the top track and field athletes in North America. He competed mainly in one-mile, two-mile and steeplechase footraces and won several national titles in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Orton transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue his doctorate in 1893 and received an enthusiastic welcome from the institution’s athletics department. While at Penn State, he stood out as an incredible athlete who excelled in hockey, cricket and soccer in addition to track and field. He also carried a reputation as an outstanding sportsman and brought great pride to the school until he completed his Ph. D. in 1896.

Orton remained active in track and field long after his varsity career was over, and was eventually called upon by his alma mater to join the American team at the upcoming Olympic Games. Orton accepted the offer and flew to Paris in 1900. The Canadian athlete’s stellar performance at the Games earned him the top spot on the podium in the 2500 metre steeplechase as well as a third-place title in the 400 metre hurdles. However, since he’d traveled to Paris with Americans—Canada sent its first delegation to the following Games—his Canadian connection went unnoticed for decades. In fact, Orton himself died before the IOC finally recognized him as Canada’s first Olympic gold medalist.

It’s difficult to argue the fact that George Orton was an incredibly talented individual whose intellect rivaled his athletic prowess. While in Paris, he impressed many with his fluency in nine languages. Later, he became an accomplished author and member of the American Society of Poets. His published works include a history of track and field at the University of Pennsylvania and several tomes about running, as well as a series of popular youth novels promoting an active lifestyle.

Orton passed away at age 85 in Meredith, New Hampshire. While he spent much of his life in the United States, his crowning achievement was, like his place of birth, decidedly Canadian.