From Winchester to the Olympics – The Greatest Athlete (you’ve never heard of)

Book cover courtesy Dundurn Press

SOUTH DUNDAS – From Winchester, Ontario to the University of Pennsylvania, to Canada’s first Olympic gold medalist – the story of George Washington Orton is one of a person who overcame adversity to become one of the great athletes of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Orton, who grew up partly in Winchester, was not expected to walk after a childhood injury, and had one arm that did not function.

He went on to become a runner and competed for national titles in Canada, then for the University of Pennsylvania, and became Canada’s first Olympic gold medalist.

But there is more to Orton’s story than just sports.

An academic who spoke several languages, he became a pioneer of promoting physical fitness in youth, founded recreation camps for boys and girls, was an author, a journalist, and promoted the benefits of sports and activity in youth.

Then Orton was forgotten by history.

That was until a trivia question piqued the interest of noted Toronto-based sports broadcaster Mark Hebscher.

The Greatest Athlete (you’ve never heard of) sifts through the ashes of history and dusts off the story of Orton to bring the details of his life back into the light.

The book is mostly a biography of Orton, but also a humourous look at the perils of creating a documentary, and is a bit autobiographical of Hebscher’s 30-plus year career in sports broadcasting.

If Hebscher’s name sounds familiar, he and fellow anchor Jim Tatti originated Global TV’s late-night sports show Sportsline in the mid-1980s.

Hebscher was on the show from 1984-1995, and is known for the Hebsy Awards, his picks for sports bloopers of the week. If you’ve enjoyed watching sports highlights on TSN or Sportsnet, Sportsline blazed the trail of modern sports television.

“Orton’s accomplishments were remarkable,” Hebscher told The Leader during a recent interview. “Canadians deserve to know about him.”

The book was originally planned as a documentary for Hebscher, which began with a simple trivia question from his son: Who was the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal?

Throughout the 216-page story, Hebscher dives into all of Orton’s accomplishments on the sports field, in track, in the hockey rink, and even the soccer pitch.

Researching Orton was a challenge. Hebscher said the most difficult part of researching Orton’s story was inconsistency.

“Information just wasn’t available back then, not the way we expect it now,” he said. “The expectation by many now is you’ll do a few Google searches, go to the library, maybe make a few phone calls.”

He said he kept running into dead ends, many which he did not get wrapped up even now.

The planned documentary project is on hold for now as he has found more information between the time he stopped filming the initial project, and writing the book. He does plan on getting the story out to the public visually, possibly in conjunction with the Penn Relays, which Orton organized for many decades while at the university as an academic.

Mark Hebscher – Dundurn Press/Courtesy photo

Hebscher’s research into Orton took him down many paths and showed the connections between many of the sports pioneers in North America, including James Naismith, and famous former Penn football player John Heisman – whose name now adorns the trophy given to NCAA Football’s most outstanding player. Not bad for a guy who grew up partly in Winchester, and at horse racing tracks around Eastern Ontario. Orton’s father Oliver, was involved in horse racing and in the agriculture industry.

Another challenge for Hebscher was getting a feel for the personality of Orton.

“Orton didn’t want to talk about himself,” he said. “I really wanted to get to know him from his own words about himself.”

He said that Orton was good at writing about other people and was an accomplished author and journalist, but he was not a self-promoter.

“I couldn’t tell if he had a sense of humour, what kind of guy he would be if you sat and had a beer with him. I don’t know. I never got the sense.”

Hebscher said he hoped the takeaway readers would have is that even 120 years ago, Canada produced incredible athletes.

“This is an unbelievable human that really deserved to be in the history books,” he said. “What happened to him was almost criminal.”

He said that even to this day, Orton is not recognized as a Canadian by many.

“His accomplishments are remarkable,” Hebscher explained. “Forget where they took part, look at the man we’re talking about. He deserves to be known as a great Canadian as much as James Naismith for inventing basketball. Both left the country at about the same time.”

Hebscher said that he didn’t know what the reason was for Orton being forgotten in Canada.

“Maybe people thought he was a Benedict Arnold for going to compete in the United States; or maybe it was because he was better at telling other people’s stories than his own.”

The Greatest Athlete (you’ve never heard of) was published by Dundurn Press, and is available at major book retailers. Or you can purchase a personalized copy of the book directly from the author by emailing Hebscher at markhebscher@gmail.com.

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