The Greatest Athlete (you've never heard of)

Canada’s First Olympic Gold Medallist

Reviewed by Dave Baxter

Posted July 28, 2020

Ask a Canadian about this country’s first Olympic gold medal winner, and chances are that the athlete’s name won’t easily come to mind. Author, sports commentator, and television personality Mark Hebscher was asked that same question and discovered that he didn’t know the answer, either.

That realization led him on what he calls a “bewildering two-year odyssey” to learn all he could about a little-known Canadian. In The Greatest Athlete (you’ve never heard of ), Hebscher tells the story of George Orton, who was paralyzed as a child and told that he might never walk again but went on to become one of the greatest athletes of his generation.

At the 1900 Paris Olympics, Orton won the gold medal in the 2,500-metre steeplechase event — but, in an era when athletes did not compete for their countries, he was later incorrectly listed as being an American. Perhaps this was because Orton, who was born in Canada, competed for the University of Pennsylvania.

It was more than seventy years before the mistake was finally corrected and his victory credited to Canada. Mark Hebscher’s book The Greatest Athlete (you’ve never heard of) tells the story of an athlete who, the author says, should be celebrated but “somehow landed in history’s dustbin.”


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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Canada’s History.

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