Born George Washington Orton in Strathroy on January 10, 1873, he was the first Canadian to win an Olympic Games gold medal.
The son of Oliver Henry Orton and Mary Ann Irvine Orton, George’s historic accomplishment wasn’t in the name of Canada but instead for the United States. That was in 1900 when the Games were held in Paris where Canada didn’t enter a team.
Nevertheless, Orton put Strathroy and Canada on the map when he won the 2,500-metre steeplechase and collected a bronze medal in the 400-metre hurdles.
After being crippled in an accident as a child young George turned to exercise, particularly running, to overcome his injury. He soon found he had a natural gift for long distance running. At the University of Toronto he dominated the half-mile and mile runs in meets throughout Canada and the United States. His mile time of 4:21.8 set in 1892 stood as a Canadian record for 30 years.
Orton entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1893 to study romance languages earning an M.A. and PhD and being captain of the Penn track and field team. His track and field career apart from the Olympic Games was spread over the years of 1892 through 1903. Included was a championship run at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago and numerous American triumphs at one-mile, 10 miles, cross-country, and steeplechase. He also competed in England, France and Belgium. His total number of wins was reported to be 121.
Included in the kalidescope of Orton’s amazing career was a stint as a track coach at Penn and he wrote a book about the track and field history of that university. He was also an outstanding athlete in other sports. He had played on the U of T soccer team and was still playing soccer in Philadelphia for the Merchantville team in 1923.
He started hockey at Penn and played on its first team. And he played hockey in Philadelphia until 1934. He became director of Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium and a pioneer in organizing the Army-Navy football game. He founded a youth camp and playground association and authored books for boys. In later life he was secretary of the Rose Tree Fox Hunting Club in Media, Pennsylvania. And he dabbled in poetry.
This almost forgotten hero died at age 85 on January 26, 1958 in Meredith, New Hampshire. Already in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall, it’s our turn to pay tribute to a local sporting icon.
Read more about George Orton in Mark Hevbscher’s new book (2019): The Greatest Athlete (You’ve Never Heard Of).