BOB'S BLOG The Boston Marathon and Tom Longboat
I usually give some thought to Tom Longboat at this time of year.
On April 19, 1907, Longboat a member of the Onondaga Nation who grew up at Six Nations, southeast of Brantford, Ont., ran to victory at the Boston Marathon.
That victory and many others, as an amateur and professional, established Longboat as one of our country’s greatest athletes.
His time that day was 2:24:24, clocking in five minutes faster than any previous Boston winner. (In those days, the race was contested over a distance of 24.5 miles not the standard 26 miles, 385 yards or 42.2 kilometres that we know today.)
Here is how the Boston Globe reported on the Tuesday following the race.
“The thousands of persons who lined the streets from Ashland to the B.A.A. were well repaid for the hours of waiting in the rain and chilly winter weather, for they saw in Tom Longboat the most marvellous runner who has ever sped over our roads. With a smile for everyone, he raced along and at the finish he looked anything but like a youth who had covered more miles in a couple of hours than the average man walks in a week. Gaining speed with each stride, encouraged by the wild shouts of the multitude, the bronze-colored youth with jet black hair and eyes, long, lithe body and spindle legs, swept toward the goal.”
Unfortunately, much of what was written on Longboat in the years following the race wasn’t as admiring.
In a 2004 newspaper interview, Canadian Olympian Bruce Kidd characterized that early coverage:
"When he won, he was portrayed as a proud Canadian. When he lost, he was portrayed as a drunken Indian."
Kidd’s analysis can be found in a thesis by William Brown. His Remembering Tom Longboat: A Story of Competing Narratives was prepared for a Master of Arts (History) at Concordia University. The thesis documents how the narrative has changed over the years.
Writing in 2009, Brown argues that what was written about Longboat in the century after his athletic success fell into two general categories.
“There is the early, racially influenced view of him as a gifted but undisciplined man who needed constant supervision and guidance. And there is the current view of him as a strong-willed, independent, and innovative athlete who survived racial discrimination to become an inspiration, not just for Aboriginal people … but for all Canadians.”
That early narrative also challenged Longboat’s training methods or, in some cases, his lack of training.
Bruce Kidd has written extensively on Longboat. Kidd says that Longboat ``seems to have had a particularly good idea of the type of training he needed … Mr. Longboat took daily walks of 20 miles and lifted weights. Twice each week, he took long runs at varying speeds and did frequent time trials.”
In recent years books like Jack Batten’s, The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone (2002) have embraced the more positive narrative. Batten’s book provides context to Longboat’s early life as an athlete and later years as a World War 1 veteran and City of Toronto employee. It reveals the racism that permeated early 20th century society; details unscrupulous promoters working angles to make a buck and illustrates the appalling poverty endured by aboriginal communities.
Other Canadians besides Longboat played prominent roles in the early history of the Boston marathon. The second event in 1898 was won by Antigonish’s Ronald J MacDonald. Two years later Canadians led by John Caffery took the top three spots. In 1901, Hamilton’s Caffery won again with Mohawk Six Nation resident Bill Davis coming second.
The last Canadian to win at Boston was Josh Cassidy. The Port Elgin native set a world record in the wheelchair division in 2012.
This year’s Boston Marathon begins at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, April 21 and can be viewed live-streamed at this link.
Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who has built a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie.