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Canadians and the Olympics

by Bruce Kidd

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.

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