Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tom Longboat and my grandfather

A few nights ago my husband and I watched the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. I thought they were spectacular. Confession: I'm half Canadian; my mom was born and raised in Brantford, Ontario, and truthfully, I felt a surge of pride seeing all those red maple leaf flags and wheat field projections.

The small town of Brantford, where my mother, her five brothers and parents lived, is just northwest of the Six Nations Reserve. Back in the early 1900s, an Onodaga Indian named Tom Longboat lived on the Ohsweeken reservation there. Longboat was a tall, lanky fellow, known for being the fastest kid on the rez; he starting out chasing cows and ending up winning the "Around the Bay Road Race" in Hamilton, Ont. in 1906, at the age of nineteen.

Tom Longboat

In 1907, he began training at the West End YMCA in Hamilton, the closest big city to Brantford, where my grandfather Joseph Noble hung out. My grandfather loved the "Y," played basketball and ran track (he even snuck my grandmother Eva Noble into the "Y" for shvitz baths late at night). He was known as an accomplished athlete, winning an impressive number of trophies, like the one below for basketball.

Joseph Noble, first athlete from left, the little guy in black sneakers

According to my Uncle Cecil, his father (my grandfather) crossed paths with Longboat at the "Y," where they raced against each other on a short meter track. My grandfather was fast, but not fast enough to beat Longboat, who went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1907 and represent Canada in the Olympics—the first native to do so—at the Fourth Olympiad in London, England in the summer of '08. When I was in Ottawa for a family reunion a few years ago, I visited the offices of the Canadian Olympic Assoc. where I riffled through files, and came across Longboat's name among twenty-two competitors. There were two presiding officials and seven categories that year: Athletics, Wrestling, Fencing, Shooting, Clay Pigeon, Cycling, and Swimming and Diving.

Longboat followed a "hard, easy and recovery day" mode of training, but sports promoters and the press considered him "lazy." Today, long distance racers follow this model. Too bad for Tom Longboat. As an Indian alone in a competitive field, he was taken advantage of, sold off to different trainers-promoters, and eventually quit running. His last job was on a garbage truck in Toronto. He retired to the Sixth Nations Reserve, where he died in 1949.

Although Longboat died destitute and out of favor, Canadians remember him today as the greatest marathon runner of his time. The Tom Longboat Award, sponsored in conjunction with the University of Toronto and the Longboat Roadrunners, is given yearly to an aboriginal student long-distance runner, and the Longboat Island 10k Run is held on Toronto Island every September.
Tom Longboat, 1887-1949 


Most readers love Bill Plaschke, the sports columnist for the LA Times, I mean really love the guy. But today he stepped over my sentimentality line when he wrote "Wrapped in the flag of his family," about snow boarder and gold medalist Seth Wescott, and the American flag that means so much to his family. "In this game," Plaschke wrote, "that is the measure of a champion, the guy who can win with snow on his butt and a lump in his throat." Yuck. How do sports writers get away with this sugary drivel? Any other journalist would be handed one last cigarette and shot at dawn.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting story, Charlotte. Love that photo of your grandfather looking so proud and elegant.