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Marathon runner Tom 'Wildfire' Longboat

They stand among Canada's great sporting heroes, immortalized by world championships, shattered records and even stamps. Yet their overstuffed trophy cabinets contain no Olympic medal. We look back at some remarkable Olympians and the reasons they fell short of the most coveted honour in amateur sport.

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Tom Longboat was a Canadian running sensation. In this CBC Radio clip, Wilton Littlechild talks about the native hero's marathon triumphs and his Olympic disappointment. After sensationally winning the 1907 Boston Marathon, Longboat collapsed short of the finish line at the 1908 Olympics. The mysterious loss fuelled rumours that he'd been drugged. Longboat never ran in another Olympics but he enjoyed great success in professional competitions, says Littlechild, recipient of an award named after Longboat.
• Tom Longboat was born June 4, 1887, on the Six Nations reserve, now known as Ohsweken, in southern Ontario. His Onondaga Indian name was Cogwagee. Many reporters later dubbed the swift-legged native "Wildfire." Longboat's father died when he was a boy. He grew up on his mother's modest farm and was known as a boy who loved to run.

• According to David Blaikie, author of Boston: The Canadian Story, Longboat came to the attention of a running coach while competing at a fair near his home. The runner became a local sensation at age 19 when he stunned his competitors and cost bookmakers a fortune at a Hamilton, Ont. race. He won the 1906 "Around the Bay" marathon in near-record time. His fame grew as he won more races, shattering running records by minutes rather than seconds.

• By April 1907, Longboat was an international sports celebrity and the odds-on favourite to win the famed Boston Marathon. He did not disappoint, crossing the finish line in two hours, 24 minutes and 24 seconds. That shaved an amazing five minutes off the 40-kilometre course record. The Boston Globe newspaper said hordes of spectators who braved cold, wet weather were rewarded with a view of "the most marvelous runner who has sped over our roads."

• Longboat faced accusations that he had forfeited his amateur status because he lived in a Toronto hotel with no apparent means of support. He was barred from defending his Boston Marathon title by the New England Amateur Athletic Union. Olympic officials, however, disagreed. He ran in London but collapsed 32 kilometres into the 40-kilometre race. His trainer suggested doping as sabotage. Others speculated he and another fallen runner had overdosed on a stimulant.

• Longboat turned pro shortly after the Olympics. He had a legendary showdown with Italian runner Dorando Pietri at Madison Square Garden in New York. They ran a marathon distance on an indoor track. Near the end of the hugely publicized race, Longboat made his move. His competitor tried to keep up but collapsed unconscious. A 1909 rematch ended with similar results. That year, Longboat became the world professional marathon champ with a victory over Alf Shrubb in New York.

• In 1916, with the international running craze over, Longboat volunteered to join the war effort. He served with various regiments in England and France, where his duties included running messages between command posts. Longboat was wounded before returning to Canada in 1919. He lived out much of the rest of his life as a City of Toronto garbage collector. Longboat retired to his birthplace and died on the reserve from pneumonia at age 61 on Jan. 9, 1949.

• Although the target of racist labels and stereotypes during his lifetime, Longboat has since been recognized as a Canadian sporting hero. The subject of several books and a television movie, he was honoured by Canada Post with a stamp in 1999. Newspapers and broadcasters ranked him 23rd on a list of top Canadian athletes of the 20th century. There's also a Tom Longboat Award for aboriginal sporting excellence and a Tom Longboat Junior Public School in Toronto.

• Longboat expert and author Bruce Kidd discovered in the late 1970s that a $500 reward, promised to Longboat by the City of Toronto for winning the Boston Marathon, was never paid. A dispute erupted over what should happen to the prize, swollen by inflation to $10,000. Some city officials wanted the money to go to a native scholarship fund. Longboat's heirs said the money belonged to them. In 1980, the city paid $10,000 to Longboat's three children.
Medium: Radio
Program: Our Native Land
Broadcast Date: Oct. 8, 1977
Guest(s): Wilton Littlechild
Host: Bob Charlie
Duration: 4:06

Last updated: June 23, 2014

Page consulted on June 23, 2014

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