He was a world champion long-distance runner - King of the marathon world, at a time when marathoning was only second to boxing, in terms of world attention. His native origins made his bursting forth into public attention all the more remarkable, since international sport was, at the time, a white man's game. And when the trajectories of his career and life turned downward, that was simple proof for many in those racist times An Onondaga fromthat his earlier celebrity was a distortion of the native person's destiny. Even newspapers referred to Mr. Longboat as ``the Injun'' and ``Heap Big Chief.'' In 1906, at age 19, he entered the 20-mile Hamilton Bay race, an utterly unknown entrant who didn't impress the onlookers. One writer described Mr. Longboat on that day, before the race, as cutting ``a pathetic figure in a pair of bathing trunks with cheap sneakers on his feet, and hair that looked as if it had been hacked off by a tomahawk.'' Some of the bookmakers had put Mr. Longboat down at 60 to 1 odds, and one lucky bettor even managed to place a $2 bet at odds of 500 to 1. That day, his running style didn't initially impress, either. Most runners of the time ran with arms high, pumping the elbows. Mr. Longboat kept his just above the waist, a more natural form that most runners use today. He won the race and the next several Canadian races. Mr. Longboat, unknown only months before, was now the odds-on favourite at the Boston Marathon in April of 1907. Sports reporters hailed him as ``The Speedy Son of the Forest'' and ``The Indian Iron Man.'' His chances of winning were considered so strong that bookies were leery of accepting a bet on him, at any odds. He crossed the finish line at 2:24:25, setting a new course record that remained unbroken until the course was made easier.
The whole city of Toronto acclaimed him when he returned. As David Blaikie wrote in Boston: the Canadian Story, ``A sea of celebrating humanity engulfed Longboat as he stepped from the train. The champion was placed in an open car, a Union Jack about his shoulders, and taken to City Hall in a torch light parade. Young women gazed at Longboat in rapture as bands played and fireworks exploded around him. A gold medal was pinned to his chest and the mayor read a congratulatory address, highlighted by an announcement of a 500-dollar gift from the city for his education.'' Would Mr. Longboat turn professional? Doing so had appeal. In the first decade of the century, races between professional racers were drawing large sellout crowds in arenas around North America. The purses were large -- and Mr. Longboat's winning potential was now a matter of record. There was only one consideration. The 1908 Olympics were approaching, and Mr. Longboat was the odds-on favourite to win the marathon event. But he could only enter the Olympics as an amateur. In 1907, the New England Amateur Athletic Union declared Mr. Longboat a professional, banning him from returning to Boston in 1908 to defend his marathon victory. The 1908 Olympic Marathon was supposed to be Mr. Longboat's most shining moment, but destiny had other plans. He was in second place when he collapsed at the 19-mile mark. All sorts of rumours immediately began to fly. Some people suggested that Mr. Longboat must have been drugged so certain crooked bettors could rake in huge winnings on his upset loss. There were even suggestions that Mr. Flanagan, his manager, had had a hand in it. Howard Crocker, the manager of the Canadian Olympic team, stated flatly: ``Any medical man knowing the facts of the case will assure you that the presence of a drug in an overdose was the cause of the runner's failure.'' Nothing was ever proved. Racist assumptions weren't held only by Mr. Longboat's detractors. Lou Marsh, a famous Toronto Star writer, once described Mr. Longboat as ``smiling like a coon in a watermelon patch.'' And while delivering that kind of condescension, Mr. Marsh was a friend and later became Mr. Longboat's manager. Racist stereotypes were so entrenched as to be invisible, often even to people of good motivation. Mr. Longboat's first important race as a professional was in December 1908 at Madison Square Gardens in New York City -- a two-man race, against Dorando Pietri, [on the left is what these kind of events looked like at the start, and of course Dorando is the great Italian runner who I blogged about this week, the 1908 Olympics, being drunk, drugged, and carried to the finish line, later disqualified]. Mr. Pietri and Mr. Longboat were each guaranteed one-quarter of the gate receipts, amounting to $3,750 apiece. The race, on a circular track, was for the full 26-mile 385-yard distance of the official marathon. Mr. Longboat let Mr. Pietri lead for much of the first 25 miles. But for the last mile, he surged ahead, using the strong kick that had become his signature finishing strategy. [END].