Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

25 August 2011

Tom Longboat


Last week we uploaded to the Olympics website an article by our Canadian and Caribbean curator Phil Hatfield ( It’s about the Canadian runner Tom Longboat, a Native American from the Onondaga nation who represented his country at the 1908 Olympics and was a formidable runner.

Longboat’s dramatic and unexpected triumph at the Boston marathon of 1907 thrust him into the limelight and burdened him with the huge expectations of the Canadian public and media. A number of ensuing successes made him odds-on favourite to win the Olympic marathon in London but unfortunately he was one of the many competitors who collapsed in the unusually hot conditions which prevailed on the day. This was of course the marathon which made Dorando – himself in a state of collapse – world famous. Two long distance matches were later arranged between these two men, both of which were won by the Canadian.

Prejudice and controversy dogged Tom Longboat throughout his career. His failure at the Olympics was attributed to the misuse of stimulants, and his amateur status was loudly questioned by his opponents. Later, when he did turn professional, he had numerous problems with his managers, one of whom sold his contract to an American promoter for $2000.

Inevitably, racism played its part in people’s perceptions of him, and Phil’s article takes a close look at his metamorphosis from private individual to national hero, using two photographs from the British Library’s Canadian collections to emphasise both the ‘fluidity of biography’ and the awareness that must be brought to the evaluation of sporting and cultural legacy, ‘especially when race and nationalism are significant factors’.

The images of Tom Longboat, which were taken by the photographer Charles Aylett in 1907, form part of a collection of Canadian photographs which were acquired by the Library between 1895 and 1924. They were received under Colonial Copyright Law from photographers who wished to register them as copyrighted material, and they form a fascinating resource of images of Canada captured by a number of professional and amateur photographers in the Dominion. As with many of these ‘incidental’ acquisitions, the photographs lay largely fallow on the Library shelves until Phil wrote his Ph.D on them, thereby bringing out their significance and value to scholarship. Phil’s thesis can be accessed at


Kidd, Bruce. Tom Longboat. Don Mills: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, [1980]

London reference collections shelfmark:  X.629/24653






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