A Long Look Back at Longboat

For a certain slice of the sport-loving public, Africa doesn’t immediately summon mental images of devastation by AIDS, ethnic strife, desertification or hunger. For devotees of distance running on road and track, Africans are the graceful, superbly fit athletes who dominate their sport in an almost unimaginable way. Moroccan, Ethiopian and, to an astonishing degree, Kenyan runners are the perennial champions of the most ancient and elemental athletic contests of them all. Never should we minimize the traumas of that deeply abused continent, but it is good to see Africans as winners and heroes.

Yesterday, at the Boston Marathon, Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot won for the third time. His countrymen came second through fourth, and have won the classic race fifteen of the last seventeen years. I became a fan of Kenyan running during the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, at each of which Kipchoge Keino won a silver and a gold medal on the track, from 1500 metres to the steeplechase. (And while we’re only a couple of days from remembering Jackie Robinson, here’s another brilliant athlete who is even a greater man. Please click here for more on Keino.)

So, go, Africans, go, but that isn’t even what I wanted to write about today. For me, and for a lot of Canadians, especially the down-home friends on the Six Nations reserve, the Boston Marathon yesterday was most importantly the 100th anniversary of the record-setting run of the great Tom Longboat. (There was a very fine Longboat tribute by James Christie in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. Highly recommended.)

Though he ran so long ago, now, Longboat’s career arc is a fairly familiar one to us. It was all the more so in the days when an athlete’s already brief career was an insistently amateur one: to be an Olympian, or to defend his Boston Marathon victory, there was to be no salary, no endorsements. There were severe competitive restrictions for those who “sullied” their sport by accepting prize money. Indeed Longboat, still young and having trained largely on his own, was not welcome on Heartbreak Hill in 1908 because he had made a few dollars with his feet. His fall from grace was also accelerated by the enduring racism and privation experienced by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. We love to kick our stars when they fall, and Longboat took an especially spirited beating. (Published references to him, even when he was winning, are, by today’s lights, cringe-worthy in their ignorance and stereotyping.) Longboat was a source of enormous national pride when he was winning and was ignored, or openly despised, when he no longer was. His reputation, badly damaged in early- and mid-century, is being redeemed, thanks largely to the efforts of a more contemporary running man, the quiet Canadian hero of sport and equality, Bruce Kidd. Kidd’s 1992 biography offers a modern and more sympathetic view of the Onondaga athlete.

I loved the Globe’s photo. There’s Tom Longboat in knee-length khaki shorts with a black leather belt and black high-top shoes. It is a picture, though, of a body made for running. The legs are thin and unusually long, the shoulders broad and well-muscled for a distance runner, perhaps because of the lacrosse and other tough sports that he loved to play. And it’s a familiar face, somehow. I went to high school in Caledonia, just after the graduation of more local Six Nations running legends named Anderson or Bomberry. But we all knew about Longboat, in a hazy sort of way. Some reports referred to him as the “Caledonia Cyclone”, as one of his earliest successes came in a race at the town fair, but he wasn’t from town.

Years later, teaching and coaching in that same school, I had a young Longboat on my basketball team. Reading a frustrated account of a Canadian sportswriter trying to interview the tight-lipped Tom, I couldn’t help but remember coaching young Todd – a relative, I’d guess from the Globe photo, though I was never able to find out – and feeling good whenever he was sufficiently at ease to smile. I don’t know if I ever got a complete sentence out of him, and I never knew exactly where he lived. He wasn’t an outstanding basketball player, but he ran his guts out and rebounded hard against far bigger guys. Our school didn’t do much with track and field, so I don’t know how well Todd had inherited the running gene. He was tough, I know that, but here’s another Longboat I need to find out more about.

So here we are, 100 years after one of the greatest victories in the history of Canadian sport, remembering with greater justice and comprehension the career of a magnificent athlete. It’s far too late for Tom Longboat, of course, who died in 1948, but idealism compels me to wonder out loud: where are the young native athletes who can be inspired, as the youth of Kenya were by Keino, by the legend of “Cogwagee”? History knows him as Tom Longboat, a young Onondaga man who ran the rural miles of Grand River country and made himself the best in the world. I hope that we shall see the likes of him again.

A Sunday Morning Voice From Israel

I think of myself as a relatively literate person – spend enough time around gymnasiums and ball fields, and a guy who reads can get this impression – but apparently I’m no Eleanor Wachtel. I’d never even heard of David Grossman, the (apparently) quite wonderful Israeli novelist, but Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition brought him into my kitchen yesterday morning.

There’d been an April series of interviews and discussions recorded in Israel, most of which I hadn’t heard. The culminating interview was yesterday’s 25 minutes or so (ah, the pleasures of commercial-free radio!) between Enright and Mr. Grossman, a sympathetic and thoughtful commentator on the eternal (in my life, at least) Middle East Problem. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have, in the western popular mind, pluralized this Problem, but it always comes back to roost in Palestine, the Holy Land (aren’t they all?), the Greater Israel of the extreme Zionists. And in the centre, the modern state of Israel and the territories it occupies or otherwise influences and warns. The Jewish Question remains, though it has been re-cast in their reclamation of an ancestral homeland in the years since 1948.

“We are a story,” says Grossman of the Jewish people, an enormously polarized one that he wishes was just a bit less compelling. Extremes make for good fiction, but they make ordinary life tenuous and painful. A little moderation might be nice, he thinks: “[Jews] are idealized or demonized, but these are simply the two faces of dehumanization. I just want a solid existence, a place to be, and for us to live an enjoyable life.” (The same is true of Aboriginal people everywhere, including those occupying land near my home town of Caledonia.) Most Israelis want only the same thing. But unlike Grossman, most Israelis have no idea how their Palestinian neighbours live, and they may not want to. (Digressing again, I’d say the same is true of many Caledonians.) “Most,” he told the CBC’s Michael Enright, “cannot rise above the fear that they have for each other. This fear is almost mythological.” (If I were to digress again, I would say something about a similar fear in and around a small Ontario town. But I’m too disciplined for that.)

Contemporary Israel’s fear is a recent innovation, though the ignorance of conditions in the West Bank is of long standing. “For the first 21 years of the occupation,” says Grossman, “there was no hatred from Israelis toward Palestinian. They were inconsequential; they were almost as children.” And the Israeli media tended to act not as a lens but as a buffer, insulating Israelis from the reality of military occupation. At least, that is, until Grossman wrote a series of late-‘80s articles about living in occupied territory, a series that eventually became the novelist’s best-known work, a non-fiction sensation in Israel called The Yellow Wind. (It is a must-read, already on order from my local library. Are libraries not the greatest institutions ever? I’ll probably go overdue on this book, and I’ll be happier to pay the fine than you were to read another digression.)

The Yellow Wind reminded Israelis that they are occupiers, a dysfunctional dynamic that can only distort both peoples. Grossman is not engaging in knee-jerk national self-loathing – “we are not the only bad guys here; Israel is not surrounded by the Salvation Army” – but I think he paints a most intelligent, humane and, as far as I can tell, fair portrait of conditions in Palestine. He spoke very strongly yesterday about the great wall that Israel is building to insulate itself from Palestinian guerrilla attacks: “A wall will not stop Palestinian misery and poverty…You cannot impose a border upon your neighbours. A wall is against dialogue. We must acknowledge the harm we have done to each other. We must pay a maturity tax.”

I’m glad Mr. Grossman came into my house. His is a weary but stubbornly hopeful voice, one that deserves a wider hearing and more of my attention. Coming soon to a bedside table near me.