Canada 150

Fanny 'Bobbie' Rosenfeld: An icon for all ages

Olympic champion Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld wasn't just a Canadian track star, she also left a legacy that few athletes in this country could ever equal.

Canadian track star, sports writer left a legacy few can equal

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld, second from left, was a major star at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. (The Canadian Press)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer and sprinter Harry Jerome. We also looked back at the Richard Riot, auto racing's Villeneuve family, and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

When Olympic champion Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld signed autographs, she would often draw a picture of two dice, and add "Just a Natural."

On any field of play, the Canadian would never crap out.

She was not just a star on the softball diamond, at a time when a big women's game at Toronto's old Sunnyside Stadium in the late 1920s might draw more fans than the men's pro baseball team, the Maple Leafs, a few miles to the east.

Not just a star on the basketball court, where she led her Young Women's Hebrew Association team to a national championship game vs. the famous Edmonton Grads. And not just a star on the hockey rink, where her teams won numerous Ontario Ladies titles.

She could, as former journalism colleague Robert Fulford said in an interview last week, "just pick something up and, in 10 minutes, be right into it."

Ten minutes? How about 12.1 seconds?

Shocked officials

It was 1923 and Rosenfeld's powerful softball team had gone to Beamsville, Ont., for a picnic tournament where, it happened, there would also be a track meet. Goaded by teammates, Bobbie entered the event and won it, bringing shocked officials running up.

Did you know you just defeated Canada's sprint champion, Rosa Grosse and set a new national record?

Well, no.

So another sport was added to the list — the one that would take this Jewish, Russian-emigre daughter of a family that escaped the vicious pogroms of Russia in 1905, and turn her from local sports celeb to Olympic hero.

Legendary coach Walter Knox wasted no time matching Rosenfeld with his other runners, including Grosse, Grace Conacher, and Myrtle Cook, against the famed Chicago Flyers in a meet at the Canadian National Exhibition that September.

It was one of Bobbie's favourite memories.

"This team from Chicago was nattily dressed in the latest fashion, little shorts and sweaters, and most of us were in spinnaker midis [a type of skirt]," she told CBC interviewer Norm Perry in 1964 (Listen here). "I improvised — old baseball sweater and my brother's swim trunks, and my dad's wool socks."

They may have looked "like scarecrows" but the Canadians put down a beating in the 100, with Bobbie first and Grosse second. And they beat the Flyers in the relay.

Seminal Canadian women

Until 1928, women had not been allowed to compete in Olympic athletics and Canada was ready to send an excellent team to Amsterdam.

The Matchless Six included Rosenfeld, Jean Thompson, Ethel Catherwood, Jane Bell, and Ethel Smith, and they would live up to their billing by winning the women's team athletics' event (based on total points) in the Olympische Stadion.

Bobbie went to the line in the 100-metre final expected to be around third best, behind favourite Cook, who was the world-record holder at 12.0 seconds. Cook was one of two who fouled out, however, and left the track in tears.

Rosenfeld was always a slow starter and trailed the field for 30 metres before putting on a patented surge that had her in a dead heat at the line with young American Betty Robinson.

One judge called for Canada, one for the U.S., a civilized rhubarb ensued and eventually gold went south of the border.

Rosenfeld was not happy. She would later tell legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt, in a 1950 radio interview, that athletes "went [to the Olympics] with one thing in mind, to win, that's all that counts."

You weren't a goodwill ambassador.

This would be belied later in the meet when Bobbie stayed with the injured Thompson in the 800 metres, making sure she finished and letting her have fourth at the line.

Rosenfeld would run the lead relay leg for the Canadian team that included Smith, Bell and Cook, as they won a gold medal in world-record time. Catherwood took first in high jump and the team came home triumphant to a huge parade in Toronto that totalled 200,000 along the route and 100,000 at Sunnyside.

Rosenfeld talks about being voted Canada's outstanding female athlete of the last 50 years.

Struck down with rheumatoid arthritis

Rosenfeld's athletic story should have stopped before the end of the Roaring 20s, as just over a year later the star was struck down with rheumatoid arthritis, sending her to bed for nine months and almost costing a foot to amputation.

Unbeaten, she was back on the softball diamond in 1931, and would be voted Ontario's top women's hockey player. But she would never be able to play at the extraordinary level set prior to the illness, however, and coaching and organizing seemed the future.

Arthritis would plague her remaining days, mostly spent as a sports writer at the Globe and Mail.

"Her arthritis was not crippling, but it was pretty painful," says Fulford, who met Rosenfeld in 1950 when he joined the paper as an 18-year-old. "You saw her wince when she picked up something.

"She was determined to have a good time, and she was alive, bright, lively and not at all down in the dumps. You would never mention her being depressed."

By 1957, the illness prevented her working as a journalist so Rosenfeld was moved to the promotions department. She would die in her sleep in November of 1969.

Sexuality kept quiet

Bobbie Rosenfeld's sexuality would be celebrated today for its bravery, but 70 years ago it was kept quiet for her safety.

Her sister, Ethel, said in a 1999 documentary that Bobbie had wanted to marry a male reporter for the Toronto Telegram after the 1928 Games. But pressure from her family because he wasn't Jewish kyboshed that.

Later, she would begin a long relationship with a woman. Many knew, few seemed to care, all understood not to say anything because being homosexual was illegal in this country until 1969.

"Quite often her roommate would come to the sports department to pick her up at the end of the day," says Fulford. "And she would spend time talking there, and it was no question they were a couple."

Bobbie's partner also had a sense of humour.

"Her roommate said to me one time, [they] were getting a new apartment and she said we're going to need an extra room for Bobbie's trophies, cups, plaques and all of that."

Rosenfeld, silverware and all, was named to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1955. Each year Canadian Press honours the nation's top female athlete with the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award.


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