CBC SPORTS ONLINE - July 15, 2004
It took until the 1920s for the first woman to be elected to
Parliament and for the Supreme Court to rule that women were equal
Women's 100-metre world-record holder Myrtle
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.
And for at least one Games, the Canadian women's track and field team
was the equal of any other.
Jean Thompson, the world-record holder in
the women's 800 m.
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 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.
The gold-medal relay team: Jane Bell, Myrtle
Cook, Ethel Smith and Fanny Rosenfeld.
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
"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,'"
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,"
The Saskatoon Lily
After the relay, there was one event left for a member of the Matchless
Ethel Catherwood's nickname, the Saskatoon
Lily, belied the way she intimidated her opponents in the
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.