Sport: Marathon Running
Birth: Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, July 4, 1887
Died: January 9, 1949
Career Highlights1906 - Around the Bay Road Race, Hamilton, Ontario
1906 - Ward’s Island Marathon, Toronto, Ontario
1907 - Boston Marathon
1907 - Ward’s Island Marathon, Toronto, Ontario
1908 - Ward’s Island Marathon, Toronto, Ontario
1909 - World professional marathon championship, New York
Tom Longboat was Canada’s greatest long distance runner. The endurance and fortitude he displayed in training for and winning marathons stand as a metaphor for the ways in which this First Nations athlete had to face racist attitudes and stereotypes. After winning the five-mile Victoria Day race at Caledon, Ontario, in 1905 as a teenager, Longboat attracted the attention of Bill Davis, a Six Nations runner who had placed second in the 1901 Boston Marathon. Together they trained for Hamilton’s Around the Bay road race, the oldest road race in North America. Longboat won the 1906 event by more than three minutes.
Following this victory, trainers in Toronto, most notably Tom Flanagan, took control of Longboat’s career. In the fall of 1906, Longboat won the first of three consecutive 15-mile “marathons” on Toronto’s Ward Island. But it was in April 1907, that he rose to international prominence when he captured the Boston Marathon in record time, with a time nearly five minutes faster than the previous best. After, Longboat began focusing on the 1908 London Olympics.
Longboat’s pursuit of an Olympic gold medal in 1908 started badly and ended worse. Before the Games even began, American officials claimed that the First Nations runner had trained and competed as a professional, thus forfeiting his amateur status and making him ineligible for Olympic competition. Amazingly, the Canadian Amateur Athletic Federation, as part of its struggle over the control of amateur sport in Canada with the Amateur Athletic Union, supported the American case. Public sympathy and nationalist sentiment swung in Longboat’s favour, however, and he headed to London as one of the favourites in the Olympic marathon. However, Longboat collapsed as the race reached 20 miles. Rumours circulated that Longboat had been sabotaged, perhaps even by his own handlers, and that he had been administered an illegal stimulant.
The fallout from the London Olympics reiterated many of the stereotypes that Longboat faced throughout his career: “Indian” athletes were lazy, wouldn’t follow training regimens, and Longboat was stubborn and too fond of alcohol. Longboat attempted to escape these slights by buying out his contract and taking control of his career. The Olympic scandal had only fuelled public interest in long distance running. In 1909, a world professional marathon championship was staged indoors at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Longboat defeated the world’s best runners.
In 1912, Longboat set a new 15-mile world record of one hour, 18 minutes, and 10 seconds – fully seven minutes better than his fastest amateur time. During that year, Longboat competed head-to-head in ten races with his greatest rival, Britain’s Alf Shrubb. At a time when promoters could interest the sporting public in watching (and often wagering on) long distance running, Longboat’s main rivals were Shrubb and Italy’s Dorando Pietri. Longboat and Shrubb staged numerous match races in front of crowds of 20,000 or more in cities such as Toronto and New York. Longboat won every race against Shrubb when the distance exceeded 20 miles, while his British rival dominated the shorter distances.
Longboat put aside his professional running career in 1916 at age 29 to join the Canadian forces serving in Europe. He was stationed with the 107th Pioneer Battalion in France as a dispatch runner and, though twice wounded, also competed in inter-battalion races. In 1918, he won the 8-mile race at the Canadian Corps Dominion Day celebrations. He returned to Canada in 1919 but did not resume competitive running. Longboat lived out his life in relative obscurity, working for the City of Toronto before returning to the Six Nations Reserve. In 1951, the Tom Longboat Award—still administered today by the Aboriginal Sport Circle—was created to reward excellence in sport and physical activity among First Nations athletes.