Canadian Olympians


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The Canadian Olympians site provides a searchable images database of Canadian athletes at the Olympics, from the early 1900s through 2004. The images are taken from the Canadian Olympic Committee photograph collection, and were digitized by The Canadian Press. The database currently holds more than 10,000 images.

For up-to-date information on Canadian participation in the Olympics, please consult the official website of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Canadians and the Olympics

Essay by Bruce Kidd, Professor with the faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and Warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto.

Canadian Amateur sport constitutes one of the longest-standing nationalist movements in Canada. In the year of Confederation, Montreal dentist and lacrosse player George Beers established the National Amateur Lacrosse Association to instill self-discipline and a sense of citizenship among athletes through the orderly conduct of games and to foster pride in the new nation through dramatic athletic performances in international competition. Subsequent amateur sports leaders adopted these goals and when they joined Pierre de Coubertin's modern Olympic Movement early in the 20th century, they made Canadian Olympic teams a flagship for these ambitions.

The first Canadians to compete in the Olympics did so as individuals or as members of local clubs. Canada's first Olympic champion was Toronto Lacrosse Club star George Orton. At the 1900 Olympics, Orton, who was studying at the University of Pennsylvania, travelled to Paris with the American team and took the gold medal in the 2500-metre steeplechase and the bronze for the 400-metre hurdles. The requirement that athletes compete as members of national teams was not established until the Games of the IV Olympiad in London in 1908.

At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Canada took four gold medals. Étienne Desmarteau of the Montreal Police Athletic Association won the hammer throw and George Lyon of Toronto's Lambton Golf Club won the golf competition. The Galt Football Club, and the Winnipeg Shamrock Lacrosse Club won titles in their respective sports. In 1906, at the so-called Interim Games in Athens, Hamilton runner Billy Sherring, sporting a large green shamrock on his chest, won the marathon. Despite their local affiliations, these athletes' victories were quickly claimed for Canada, and whetted public appetite for the Olympic Games.

Towards a national team

The link between Canadian Olympic teams and Canadian nationalism was irreversibly forged at the 1908 Olympics. The Team was selected from the first ever Olympic trials and funded mainly by the federal government. All team members wore the maple leaf.

At the time, two competing amateur federations vied for the allegiances of athletes, clubs and the sporting public. The Toronto-based Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), in keeping with its ambition to develop Canadian citizenship, advocated a strict amateurism, while the Montreal-based Amateur Athletic Federation (AAF) allowed amateurs to play on the same teams as professionals and advocated closer relations with the United States. Athletes from both federations won places on the Canadian team. But when the AAF supported an American challenge to the eligibility of Onondaga marathon runner Tom Longboat, a popular member of the AAU, public opinion erupted against such 'base treachery' and the AAF was forced to disband. This episode ensured that the ideals of youth development through sports, the Olympics and Canadian nationalism would always be closely linked.

Longboat was eventually cleared to run in the 1908 Olympic marathon, but he collapsed at the 30-kilometre mark, a victim of a drug overdose. Whether he was doped to give him a boost or to put him out of the race has been a matter of controversy ever since. But other Canadians had better fortunes. Led by Hamilton's Bobby Kerr, who won the 200 metres and took third in the 100 metres, the Team returned with three gold, three silver, and nine bronze medals.

In 1912 in Stockholm, a much smaller Team did almost as well, winning three gold, two silver and three bronze. McGill University student George Hodgson won the 400 metres and 1500 metres in the pool, setting new world records in both events -- his winning margin in the longer race was 39 seconds.

Canadian Olympic Committee (COC)

The 1912 successes encouraged the AAU, in 1913, to create a permanent committee to organize Canadian Olympic teams. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), as the committee came to be called, functioned within the AAU until it became independent in 1950.

The Olympic Games of 1916, scheduled for Berlin, were cancelled because of war. Canadian amateur athletes and leaders were among the first to enlist and they used sport both for training and for entertaining the troops behind the lines. After the Armistice, the amateur sports leaders were eager to harness amateur sports to the tasks of social reconstruction and nation-building. They strengthened sports programs across the country, sending coaches into remote areas and staging national championships, which hitherto had rarely been held outside of Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

Internationally, James Merrick of Toronto, the first Canadian to sit on the International Olympic Committee, helped initiate the idea of 'demonstration sports' on the Olympic program, and worked with his counterparts in other countries to establish the Winter Olympic Games.

Canadian amateur sport: Coming of age

In conjunction with the Olympic Games held in Paris in 1924, a winter sports festival was held in Chamonix, France. Initially called "International Winter Sports Week," this competition was retroactively designated the first Winter Olympic Games two years later when the International Olympic Committee amended its charter. National pride swelled when the Canadian ice hockey team -- the Toronto Granites -- took the gold medal at the 1924 Games, outscoring their opponents by dramatic margins.

At the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland in 1928, Canada earned another gold medal in ice hockey when the University of Toronto Varsity Grads romped to victory, winning all three games by scores of 11-0, 14-0, and 13-0.

Canadian Amateur Sport had a watershed year at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam. Vancouver teenager Percy Williams had a stunning sweep in the 100- and 200-metre sprints. His electrifying jump finish, with the maple leaf emblazoned on his chest, was replayed on newsreels around the world.

The 1928 Games were also notable for the debut of Canadian women's Olympic participation. Until then, Canada's entries had been exclusively male even though females had been competing informally for nearly as long. The years following World War I had seen the emergence of a women's sport movement, linked to the United States and Europe, which fought for the training, participation and recognition of women in sport. They formed clubs, organized competitions, and publicized their activities in the mass media, under the slogan, 'Girls' sports run by girls'. Many of the leaders were active athletes such as sprinter Myrtle Cook and Fanny 'Bobbie' Rosenfeld, who starred in ice hockey, softball, basketball and track and field. In 1926, led by Toronto secretary Alexandrine Gibb (later a successful sportswriter), they formed the Women's Amateur Athletic Federation of Canada, and pressured the AAU to enter Canadian women in the Olympics.

The Canadian women's track and field team in Amsterdam quickly became known as the 'magnificent six'. Ethel Catherwood won the high jump. In the 100 metres, Rosenfeld was only beaten in a hotly disputed finish -- the judges did not have the benefit of a photograph. Jean Thompson and Rosenfeld narrowly missed the podium in the 800 metres, placing fourth and fifth respectively. In the final event of the women's program, the 4 x 100 relay team of Rosenfeld, Cook, Ethel Smith and Florence Bell set a world record in winning the gold. The seven Canadian women -- the six in track and field and swimmer Dorothy Prior -- brought home two golds, a silver and a bronze medal.

Overall, the Canadian Team finished fourth among 45 nations in Amsterdam, its best ever showing. Canadians were jubilant and undoubtedly the sports fever generated by these accomplishments enabled the AAU and Hamilton, Ontario in 1930, to give birth to the British Empire (now Commonwealth) Games.

The Depression years

While Olympic spirit was high following the 1928 games, subsequent economic and political factors presented challenges to Canadian teams. The Depression severely undermined the amateur movement's efforts to spread and strengthen Canadian amateur sports. Fortunately in 1932, when the Olympics were held in Lake Placid and Los Angeles, travel costs for Canadian athletes were kept to a minimum. Most competitors paid their own way with generous support from families and friends. The heroes of those Games were the men's hockey team (from Winnipeg), speedskater Jean Wilson, boxer Horace 'Lefty' Gwynne, and US-trained high jumper Duncan McNaughton. Canadians won 15 medals in all.

The 1936 Olympics, scheduled for Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin, Germany, were marred by the politics of the host Nazi government. The Nazis' murderous treatment of Jews, trade unionists and so many others ignited an international protest. While the COA voted to follow Britain's lead and send a team to Germany, individual athletes like speedskater Frank Stack, race-walker Henry Cieman, and boxers Sammy Luftspring and Norman 'Baby' Yack decided not to go. Luftspring and Yack sought to compete in the 'People's Olympics', a counter-Olympic event held in Barcelona. However, their hopes were dashed on the morning of the opening ceremonies when the event was cancelled as a result of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Canadians attending the Games in Germany encountered little hostility, but many had disappointing results. The men's ice hockey team missed their chance for the championship when they lost a preliminary round to a British team of Canadian-trained players. The highly rated Hamilton Leader eights rowing team tried to save money by purchasing a shell in Germany rather than shipping their own. Unfortunately, the German product was much heavier than what they were used to and their hopes for a medal were defeated.

Despite these disappointments, members of the Canadian delegation gave some of the best performances for Canada for many years to come. Ottawa canoeist Frank Amyot, a 31-year old six-time Canadian champion, brought back a lone gold medal after winning a tactically brilliant race. Phil Edwards, a Guyana-born doctor from Montreal, won a bronze in the 800 metres -- his fifth medal in three Olympic Games -- and Windsor's John Loaring won the silver in the 400-metre hurdles. Hamilton's Betty Taylor took third in the 80-metre hurdles, and Montreal's Joe Schleimer won the bronze in wrestling.

Canada's men's basketball team, represented by the Windsor Fords, placed second in the first ever medal tournament. They lost to the Americans 19-8 in the final, which was played on a clay court that turned to mud in a driving rain.

World War II forced the cancellation of the Olympics in 1940 and 1944. When the Games resumed in 1948, Canada fell far short of Olympic successes enjoyed between the first and second world wars. At the Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Canada took only two gold medals: Barbara Ann Scott leapt to victory in figure skating, and the RCAF Flyers men's hockey team regained the men's ice hockey championship.

Post-war decline

The transformations in Canadian society wrought by the depression, war-time mobilization, and post-war reconstruction had a devastating effect upon amateur sport organizations. Neither the AAU, nor the newly independent Canadian Olympic Committee had the resources to strengthen the conditions for Canadian sports; at best, the COA functioned as a travel agency to get the Canadian Team to the Games. Post-war affluence, a preoccupation with children's sports, and the advent and rapid spread of television, with its emphasis upon men's professional sports, all seemed to sap the enthusiasm for amateur high performance. In the conservatizing 1950s, women's participation was actively discouraged. The WAAF disbanded in 1953.

When the Soviet Union joined the Olympic movement in 1952, accelerating the application of science to performance, Canada fell further behind, garnering just three medals in Helsinki and six medals in Melbourne (and Stockholm, where the equestrian events were held), four years later. The ultimate humiliation came at the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina, Italy, when the Soviet Union, with a retooled team of bandy players, and the United States, both defeated Canada (represented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen) in men's ice hockey.

Canadian pair skaters Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, and slalom skier Anne Heggtveit gave Canadians something to cheer about in 1960, winning gold at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, but the men's ice hockey team again lost to the U.S., raising fierce criticism back home. The Summer Games in Rome were even more disappointing: the Canadian Team won but a single silver medal, its worst ever showing.

Revitalizing amateur sport

Fortunately, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had an abiding interest in amateur sports. As a young Saskatchewan lawyer he paid his own way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and witnessed the pride that successful athletes stimulated among the German people. He also noted the favourable international image the Games gave Nazi Germany. He believed that similar benefits could occur in democratic countries and vowed to promote amateur sport as a source of national pride in Canada if he ever had the chance.

In 1961, at the urging of amateur sport leaders, the Diefenbaker Government passed the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act to shore up the amateur sports organizations and to enhance Canada's image abroad by strengthening Canadian performances in international competition. The legislation was greeted by widespread enthusiasm.

This Act facilitated the creation of national teams (replacing the club teams that previously represented Canada in international competition) and the Canada Games, and provided financial support for athletes' training and travel. Progress was slow, but the dramatic 1964 Olympic performances of Vic Emery's bobsledders, rowers Roger Jackson and George Hungerford, judoka Doug Rogers, and sprinters Bill Crothers and Harry Jerome showed that Canada was coming back. The successful Pan American Games in Winnipeg during Centennial Year provided a further boost.

At the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, Nancy Greene raced to slalom victory, heralding the dramatic return of Canadian women to competitive sports. In the Summer Games at Mexico, Canadian equestrians won the jumping gold medal, and Canadians moved up in several other sports, notably swimming, where the combined men's and women's team reached 19 finals, and took home four medals. Elaine Tanner, Vancouver's 17-year old 'Mighty Mouse', won three of those, in the 100- and 200-metre backstroke and the 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay.

The revitalization of amateur sport was furthered by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, first elected in 1968. An enthusiastic participant in physical activity himself, Trudeau believed that the performances of Canadian athletes in international competition sharpened the 'image Canadians have of themselves'. In the face of Quebec separatism, western Canadian regionalism, Aboriginal people's anger, and the growing ethnocultural diversity that challenged traditional identities and allegiances, Trudeau sought to strengthen pan-Canadian unity through Olympic sport. Canadians could collectively cheer for Olympic Team members, drawn from every nationality and region, as they marched behind the maple leaf flag in identical red-and-white uniforms.

Creating the Canadian sport system

The Trudeau Government revolutionized Canadian amateur sport. It created the National Sport and Recreation Centre to strengthen the administration of the national sports organizations, the Coaching Association of Canada and the National Coaching Certification Program to enhance coaching, and the Athlete Assistance Program to provide greater financial support to athletes. These initiatives were coordinated by a new federal agency, Sport Canada. When Montreal was awarded the 1976 Olympics, these efforts were further accelerated and Olympic fever was at a high pitch.

While the Montreal Olympics are remembered by many as a failure resulting from the cost overruns occurred in building Olympic Stadium, they did provide a tremendous stimulus to the development of Canadian sports. The new programs put in place by Sport Canada -- what is now called 'the Canadian sport system' -- enabled Canadian athletes to win 11 medals in Montreal, and improved Canada's overall placing from 22nd (in Munich in 1972) to 10th. High jumper Greg Joy, swimmer Cheryl Gibson, paddler John Wood, and equestrian Michel Vaillancourt, all of whom won silver medals, brought great pride across the land.

The blanket national CBC television coverage -- the first time the Olympics were televised live in Canada -- stimulated a significant boost in participation rates among the population at large. In Quebec, where francophones had always been significantly underrepresented in the Olympic sports, the Montreal event inspired a new interest and new programs, so that today Quebec is one of the strongest regions for amateur sport in Canada. The new facilities ensured that Montreal would once again become a major centre of Canadian amateur sport.

The success of the new programs was even more strikingly demonstrated two years later, when Canadian athletes won the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton for the first and only time. With Canadian athletic performance at an all-time high, it was unfortunate that the COA, at the request of the Canadian government, voted not to attend the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; had they participated, Canadian athletes might have set new records for Olympic performance.  

The last 20 years: Olympic highs and lows

National pride in Canada's amateur athletes continued to mount. At the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Gaëtan Boucher of Ste. Foy, Quebec, won two speedskating golds and one bronze, while figure skater Brian Orser won silver in the men's singles. At the Summer Games in Los Angeles, aided by the Soviet bloc's 'payback' boycott, Canadians won a record 44 medals -- 10 gold, 18 silver and 16 bronze. Led by swimmer Alex Baumann, who smashed his world record in the 400-metre relay, Canadian athletes proved themselves fitting representatives of Canadian values. The Canadian champions were as gracious and articulate in their countless media interviews as they were athletically splendid.

The decision to award the 1988 Winter Olympic Games to Calgary provided further stimulus for national pride. Superbly organized, abounding with traditional western Canadian exuberant hospitality, the Calgary Games were judged 'best ever' by all participants, including the International Olympic Committee President, Juan Antonio Samaranch. The facilities and the financial legacy created by the Games provided the basis for a new national training centre, an approach that has proved so successful that it has been copied right across the country.

The 1988 Summer Games in Seoul brought Canada's greatest moment of shame -- Ben Johnson's disqualification for steroids after he had won the 100-metre championship. It was a devastating blow to a country that had always prided itself on its sporting values. The crisis -- and the agonizing royal commission hearings, think tanks and task forces that followed it -- led to a reassertion of the values of amateur sport. New organizations and programs were established to affirm these values, including the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which administers the toughest anti-doping policy in the world. Many athletes spoke out strongly in favour of these reforms.

A new century

The Canadian sports system appeared to do very well in the 1990s. At the Winter Olympics, downhill skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner, biathlete Myriam Bédard, and curler Sandra Schmirler along with numerous inspiring short- and long-track speedskating, figure-skating, and men's and women's ice hockey performances gave Canadians much to cheer about. In the Summer Games, swimmer Mark Tewksbury, rower Marnie McBean, sprinter Donovan Bailey, wrestler Daniel Igali and triathlete Simon Whitfield all raised the Canadian flag to the top of the victory mast. Canadians won a total of 22 medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, ranking 11th among a record 197 participating countries.

However, during the same period traditional rivals -- notably Australia and Great Britain -- took Canadian innovations and steadily improved upon them, while Canadian programs were cut back or eliminated altogether. When the difference between the podium and a lower-place finish is often a matter of centimetres, these factors are significant. Canadians won 14 medals in Sydney, the Australians 58. Not surprisingly, the Australians spent about four times as much as Canada did, giving their athletes and coaches better facilities, more extensive scientific and medical support, and much greater financial assistance, so that they do not have to find part-time employment to make ends meet. In the debate that followed the Sydney disappointments, most observers agreed that it was time for a new reinvestment in Canadian amateur sports. In response, the federal government has launched a new national policy initiative.

It remains to be seen how this initiative will move the Canadian Olympic sports ahead in the 21st century. But all observers agree: Canadian Olympic teams remain important symbols of citizenship and Canadian nationalism. Indeed, the level of their performance and the characteristics they display, express and reflect the spirit of the entire country.


  • Barney, Robert, Malcolm Scott, and Rachel Moore. "'Old Boys' at Work: The International Olympic Committee and Canadian Co-optation, 1928-1946", Olympika VII (1999), pp. 81-104.
  • Batten, Jack, ed. 1896-1996 Canada at the Olympics: the First Hundred Years. Toronto: Infact, 1996.
  • Bryden, Wendy. Canada at the Olympic Winter Games: the Official Sports History and Record Book. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1987.
  • Cosentino, Frank and Glynn Leyshon. Olympic Gold: Canadian Winners of the Summer Games. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
  • Findling, John and Kimberly Pelle, eds. Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.
  • Kidd, Bruce. The Struggle for Canadian Sport. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • --------, "The First COA Presidents". Olympika III (1994), pp. 107-110.
  • Sullivan, Jack, ed. From Athens to Montreal. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1976.
  • Techko, Tony and Carl Morgan. The Olympians Among Us: Celebrating a Century of Excellence. Windsor: TraveLife Publishing, 1995.
  • Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. New York: Overlook, 2000.
  • Wenn, Stephen. "A Call to Arms: A Sidney Dawes Campaign for COA Independence". Canadian Journal of History of Sport 21 (2) (December 1990), pp. 30-46.
  • Worrall, James. My Olympic Journey: 60 Years of Sport and the Olympics. Toronto: Canadian Olympic Committee , 2001.

Images copyright

Pre-authorized license for Canadian Olympians

Images contributed to this database by the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes without asking permission from the COC or paying copyright royalty. "Non-commercial" usage does not allow images to be used for publication, to be resold or to be used for any purpose other than personal consumption.

Any other use requires the written permission of the COC. Please contact the COC at the following address if you have any questions concerning the use of its images

Brand Use Canadian Olympic Committee

Obtaining high-resolution images

Where high-resolution reproductions are required for personal use, they may be ordered from The Canadian Press Picture Archive. Please contact the Canadian Olympic Committee account manager:

The Canadian Press Images
Telephone: 1-866-599-0599 or 416-507-2198

36 King Street East
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M5C 2L9


Canadian Olympians would not have been developed without the generous support and assistance of many individuals and organizations, to whom we express our sincere thanks.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose Canadian Digital Cultural Content Initiative (CDCCI) made Canadian Olympians possible.

The Canadian Olympic Committee contributed their excellent collection of over 20,000 photographs of Canadians at the Olympics.

The Canadian Press provided their exceptional digitization and image metadata generation services. The Canadian Press provides another historical resource for Canadian sports and news images at the CP Picture Archive.

Bruce Kidd, Professor with the faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education and Warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto​, contributed the essay Canadians and the Olympics. Professor Kidd has written extensively on the history and political economy of the Olympic movement and Canadian sport.

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