George Washington Orton (January 10, 1873 – June 24, 1958) was a Canadian middle and long-distance runner. In 1900, he became the first Canadian to win a medal at an Olympic Games. He won a bronze in the 400 metre hurdles, and then, 45 minutes later, won the gold medal in the 2500 metre steeplechase.
Born in Strathroy, Ontario, Orton was paralyzed when he fell out of a tree at the age of 3. He had suffered a blood clot on the brain, and had severely damaged his right arm. He could not walk until age 10, and fully regained his mobility around age 12. Orton did his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, earning a B.A. in 1893 in Romance Languages. He was then offered a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania in 1893 to complete his Masters (1894) and Ph.D.in Philosophy(1896). By then, he was already the top middle-distance runner in the world. He won a then-record 17 national titles in the United States, along with 7 in Canada, and one in the United Kingdom. He won the U.S. one-mile championship 6 times, the two-mile steeplechase 7 times steeplechase, the Cross Country twice, the five-mile run and the ten-mile run. While a student at the University of Toronto in 1892, Orton set a mile record of 4:21.8 which lasted for 42 years. In total, he won 131 races, including a staggering 33 National and International championships.
The crowning achievement of Orton's career was the 1900 Summer Olympics, held in Paris. Orton competed in three official Olympic events: two steeplechase competitions and the 400m hurdles. He also competed in several other events that were "handicap" races and not recognized by the IOC. Orton had to give up either time or distance to inferior runners in these events, having been severely punished by the handicapper because of his success on the track. He won a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles (the last of which was a water jump). 45 minutes later, suffering from an intestinal virus, Orton won the gold medal in the 2500m steeplechase, setting a world record of 7:34.4. The next day, still ill, he placed fifth in the 4000m steeplechase.
Unlike today, the early Olympic athletes did not represent their birth country at these competitions. Nationality was unimportant. They ran as individuals, or members of a university delegation or athletic club. Including the name of a country alongside a competitor's name did not begin until the 1908 Olympics. At the time, the IOC retroactively added a nationality alongside the names of previous performers, and that is how Orton became known as an American. Next to his name in the record books it read "George Orton-U.S.A. The mistake would go unnoticed for over 70 years before the IOC took those medals away from the U.S tally and awarded them, correctly, to Canada's medal total. Orton is also the first disabled athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. For many years, he managed to hide his disability, a "dead" right arm and hand, permanently damaged in a childhood accident.
Orton was known as "The Father of Philadelphia Hockey". He introduced ice hockey to Philadelphians in 1896 while at Penn, and captained the first team there. Citing a lack of a proper facility, Orton was responsible for the building of the first indoor ice arena in Philadelphia, and the popularity of the sport took off from there. Orton founded the Philadelphia Hockey League in 1897, and the following year formed the Quaker City Hockey Club which played in the highly-competitive American Amateur Hockey League. From 1920-1922, Orton coached the Penn Varsity hockey team. Years earlier, while attending the University of Toronto, he helped form the first hockey team there, and also played soccer for the 'Varsity' team in the Toronto Football League. Orton was chosen to play on Canada's team that played against a U.S. all-star team from Fall River, Mass. on June 14, 1891. In 1910 he played centre half for the Philadelphia all-stars against the New York all-stars In Haverford, Pennsylvania, and in 1923, at the age of 50, he was playing soccer for Merchantville in the Philadelphia league. He was a member of the Merion and Belmont Cricket Clubs of Philadelphia, the New York Athletic Club, the Pennsylvania Athletic Club, the University of Pennsylvania Track Club and was the secretary of the Rose Tree Fox Hunting Club of Media, Pa. for 43 years. Orton was also a member of the American Academy of Poets, and spoke 9 languages fluently.
Orton took part in the first Penn Relay Carnival in 1895, and later became the track coach at Penn, taking over after the death of Mike Murphy. He wrote the definitive training manual for runners, "Distance and Cross Country Running" in 1903, and also wrote a book about the history of Penn Athletics. He was the manager of the Penn Relays from 1919-1925, and helped nurture the event in it's early years, making it the greatest annual track and field competition in the world. He was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, as well as the University of Pennsylvania Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. Orton died at age 85 in Meredith, New Hampshire. His other books included the Bob Hunt series aimed at young men or boys who enjoy the outdoors. In 1903, Orton co-founded Camp Tecumseh, in Meredith, New Hampshire. A decade later, he founded Camp Iroquois, the first overnight athletic camp for girls and young ladies.
A book, "The Greatest Athlete (you've never heard of), by Mark Hebscher, was published by Dundurn Press in February of 2019.
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Hebscher, Mark. "The Greatest Athlete You've Never Heard Of." Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2019.