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Canadians and the Olympics

by Bruce Kidd

Canadian Olympic Committee

The 1912 successes encouraged the AAU, in 1913, to create a permanent committee to organize Canadian Olympic teams. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COA), 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.

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