CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 1 . . . . September 6, 2002
Those of us who follow track events today watch them from quite a different vantage point. Even if we see them live, there may be big screen coverage, instant replays, and ongoing announcement of the event. If we watch at home, television provides us with footage of past races, impressive listings of statistics, and of course, upon conclusion of the event, the all-important personal interview with the victor and other contenders. Most of today's sports fans would find the Madison Square Garden contest "the athletic equivalent of watching paint dry." Today, individual athletes typically find fame as members of teams; at the beginning of the twentieth century, the fashion was for individual contests of endurance: boxing, running, single-scull rowing events. Yet, in some ways, the lives of sports celebrities haven't changed all that much.
Born in 1887 on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, Tom Longboat's story was the familiar story of an athlete rising from obscurity and poverty to near-cult status as a runner. Natural talent made him a runner; athletic training, in the sense that we now know it, was nonexistent. As he gained celebrity, a series of manager-agents attempted to gain control of his career; however, Longboat's lack of education and innate naivete made him ill-equipped to handle the substantial sums that he won at a variety of events, perhaps the most famous being his winning of the 1907 Boston Marathon and his competing in the 1908 Olympics. In fact, like many sports heroes, he found that once he was no longer a competitor, money was very tight, and he spent most of his life working at fairly humble jobs. Like his contemporaries in the Black American community, Longboat faced prejudice, and sometimes, bad press, simply because he was a Native Canadian, a fact of which he was proud. Longboat never denied his heritage and, in his later years, he returned to the traditional beliefs and faith practices of the Onondaga Nation.
You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy reading The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone. Batten is a wonderful story-teller: Longboat's history comes alive, both through well-researched descriptions of the people and events of the running community of eastern Canada during the early twentieth century, and through the many black and white photos of Tom Longboat, his rivals, and his associates. Skillful comparisons with the contemporary sports world make us aware that, despite incredible technical advances in the equipment used by even weekend athletes, other things remain the same; rumours of performance-enhancing drugs circulated even a century ago, and the public could be incredibly fickle in its affections.
In 1998, Maclean's magazine saluted "The 100 Most Important Canadians in History." Longboat appeared at the top of a 10-person listing called Stars, eclipsing modern-day sports icon, Wayne Gretzky and pop diva, Celine Dion. After reading The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone, you will know why. As a biography, social history, and sports history, this story of a great Canadian sports hero deserves a place both in middle-school and high school collections.
Winner of the 2002 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-fiction.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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