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The Matchless Six

CBC SPORTS ONLINE - July 15, 2004

It took until the 1920s for the first woman to be elected to

Women's 100-metre world-record holder Myrtle Cook.
Parliament and for the Supreme Court to rule that women were equal to men.

It took until 1928 for women to compete in track and field events at the Olympics. Before the First World War, women were confined to more delicate athletic pursuits at the Games -- ones in which they'd be in less danger of running and breaking a sweat.

"I think a lot of it stemmed from the 19th-century attitudes and beliefs that sports were somehow for men and therefore any woman who became involved in sports would be masculinized. Another theory was that somehow their reproductive organs would be misplaced if they did a lot of running and jumping," historian Ron Hotchkiss explained to CBC.

But at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, women would compete in the sprints, long jump and high jump.

Jean Thompson, the world-record holder in the women's 800 m.
And for at least one Games, the Canadian women's track and field team was the equal of any other.

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld, Jean Thompson, Ethel Smith, Mrytle Cook, Ethel Catherwood, and Jane Bell were so formidable that they became known as the Matchless Six, although their Games open with heartbreak and controversy.

The opening event was the 100-metre race. Cook, the world-record holder, false-started twice in the final and was disqualified.

"I think she took that great disappointment to her grave," Cook's son Don McGowan, told CBC. "Here she is, everyone's expecting her to win gold."

The third start in the 100 m was clean, but the race ended in controversy. A lot of observers thought that with her late surge, Rosenfeld won the race, but the gold medal was awarded to Betty Robinson of the U.S. in a world-record time, with Rosenfeld taking the silver. Smith won the bronze medal.

Bad luck until the relay

The gold-medal relay team: Jane Bell, Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith and Fanny Rosenfeld.
The Canadians also expected gold in the 800 m. But bad fortune struck again: World-record holder Thompson injured her leg in the days leading up to the final. Nevertheless, Thompson started strongly, but as the race progressed she began to struggle and fell from the medals into fourth place.

Rosenfeld, who was running at the back of the pack accelerated to catch up to Thompson. For the final few yards she ran beside Thompson encouraging her to finish the race.

Thompson finished fourth, and Rosenfeld finished right behind her in fifth, although any people argue that if Rosenfeld could catch Thompson, she could have passed her and possibly won a medal.

"This wasn't Rosenfeld's event," said Hotchkiss. "She was only entered into it as an afterthought. I don't think it would be a leap of imagination for Rosenfeld to say 'This is Thompson's event, this is her time, and I'm not going to steal from that.'"

The next big event for the Matchless Six was the 4X100 m relay. The team was made up of Rosenfeld, Smith, Cook and Jane Bell. Bell's real name was Florence, but was nicknamed Calamity Jane by her father because she was so untidy.

Even as a teenager in a sport not considered ladylike, Bell desperately wanted to be in the Olympics. One day a coach told her how to make her dream come true.

"'Every night before you go to bed you stand in front of your mirror in your bedroom, say, "Good night, Jane Bell, member of the 1928 women's Olympic team.' That's what she did for almost a year," according to Hotchkiss.

Running the first three legs of the relay, Rosenfeld, Smith and Bell built a comfortable lead. Cook was running the anchor leg, anxious to make up for her disqualification in the 100 m. Maybe too anxious.

"So Ethel Smith is watching this from across the infield, that Jane is coming and Myrtle is taking off, and Ethel is saying, 'Jane's not going to catch you Myrtle, unless you slow up,'" explained Hotchkiss.

Bell did catch Cook in the legal passing zone and gave her the baton. Cook sped away, and the Canadian women did win their first gold medal in world-record time: 48.4 seconds.

"They felt good for themselves. They felt good for Cook because she was feeling badly about what had happened in the 100 m. They had proven to themselves and to everybody present that they were world-beaters and they deserved the reputation that they had," said Hotchkiss.

The Saskatoon Lily

After the relay, there was one event left for a member of the Matchless Six.

Ethel Catherwood's nickname, the Saskatoon Lily, belied the way she intimidated her opponents in the high jump.

Catherwood was calledthe Saskatoon Lily and dubbed the prettiest girl at the Olympics, but it was in the high jump where she'd really leave her mark.

"Her way of jumping was to jump in her sweatsuit until she missed. It psyched out the rest of the girls who had to strip down and jump in their normal togs. So she jumped until about five feet in her sweatsuit and missed. Off came the sweatsuit, and she cleared the bar easily," said Hotchkiss.

Catherwood would win the event with a jump of five-feet-one. Her gold medal remains the only individual gold medal ever won by a Canadian woman in track and field.

The six women left Amsterdam with four medals: two gold, one silver and one bronze. It was their first and last Olympics. Following their triumphant return to Canada and tickertape parades in their honour in Montreal and Toronto, every member of the Matchless Six left track and field competition.

Despite the glory and notoriety the Matchless Six brought to women's sports, none thought of themselves as pioneers.

"I don't think that was part of their thinking at the time. It was to represent the country and to do well, and to come back and be proud of what they accomplished. I don't think my mother ever thought of herself as a trail blazer," said McGowan.

Rosenfeld and Cook went on to become sports writers for the Globe and Mail and Montreal Star, respectively. Smith and Thompson both retired from competition after the Games and got married. Bell went back to school and became a physical education teacher. Catherwood, who was never comfortable in the spotlight moved to the United States and died in obscurity in 1987.

"They enjoyed the competitive aspect of sports," said Hotchkiss. "And I think they enjoyed just getting together and running and jumping and doing something that very few women had done up to that point."

reprinted with permission.

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