The Greatest Athlete

The Greatest Athlete

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George Orton was a true renaissance man, the likes of which the sports world has rarely seen. In addition to his 1900 gold medal in steeplechase, and bronze in the 400m hurdles, the man born in Strathroy, Ontario, in 1873, was a varsity track star at the University of Toronto with seven Canadian titles. He moved to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to do a master's and Ph.D. in modern languages - he was fluent in nine, including an Algonquin dialect - and won a record 17 U.S. track and field titles, four world championships, three European championships, and the English two-mile steeplechase.

In Philly, the five-foot-six-inch Orton started the city's first hockey team, organized the first leagues, and built the first indoor rink. He was the city's athletic commissioner for many years and founded what was believed to be the first all-girls summer camp in the U.S. in 1916 after starting an all-boys camp in 1903. He wrote children's novels about camp life and two revolutionary instructional books on distance running. He was the first runner to use a stopwatch in training, and the first to recommend that college football teams put numbers on players' jerseys. He has direct links to Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, Man O'War, and John Heisman.

What makes his story even more interesting is that the star athlete had been paralyzed by a fall at the age of three, could not use his right arm, and didn't walk until age 10. Nine years later, he set the Canadian record for the one-mile run, which he held forty-one years, and became the world's greatest steeplechaser. Literally and figuratively, George Orton overcame every hurdle life threw at him.

George Orton won his Olympic gold at one of the three modern Olympics for which athletes competed as individuals, not part of a national team - and so the then-Philadelphia resident was long assumed to be American. (His middle name, Washington, didn't help matters.) Because of that, Orton is all but unknown in his native country.

There are over 8,500 entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. George Orton is not one of them. With The Greatest Athlete You've Never Heard Of, Mark Hebscher hopes to change that.

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April 5, 2019
THE GREATEST ATHLETE (You've Never Heard Of): Unable to walk until age 10, George Washington Orton became the greatest runner of his generation, a true renaissance man the likes of which the sports world - and Philadelphia especially - has rarely seen.

***AUTHOR AVAILABLE FOR TV, RADIO, PRINT & ONLINE INTERVIEWS***

"Mark Hebscher has brought to life George Washington Orton for all of us to enjoy with his book. Mark's research and writing skills combined with his finding so many historic pictures capture a person and a time that had escaped us. A job well done." - JERRY HOWARTH, veteran Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster

PHILADELPHIA (April 5, 2019) - From Connie Mack to Bobby Clarke, Chuck Bednarik to Mike Schmidt, and Wilt Chamberlain to Joe Frazier, Philadelphia has always celebrated and revered its sports heroes. And then there's George Washington Orton, the subject of the fascinating - and long-overdue - new biography, THE GREATEST ATHLETE (You've Never Heard Of) (Dundurn Press, 248 pp., $21.99), by long-time Canadian broadcaster and journalist Mark Hebscher.

As Hebscher's book suggests, Orton's obscurity - especially in Philly - is puzzling at best and criminal at worst. Consider that he:

  • Is acknowledged as the "father" of Philadelphia ice hockey.
  • Played a key role in bringing the annual Army-Navy football game to the city.
  • Coached, at various times, both the men's track-and-field and hockey teams at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Won numerous track-and-field events including two medals at the 1900 Olympics representing Penn - despite a crippling injury he sustained as a child.
  • Was instrumental in the creation and subsequent growth of the Penn Relays into an internationally celebrated event.
  • Was the first high-profile proponent of putting numbers on football uniforms.
  • Is a 2016 Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
  • According to the author, this little-known, but remarkable, tale is one that deserves wide distribution.

"Orton's story is about overcoming obstacles. He was a real-life Forrest Gump," says Hebscher, best known for his work on the ground-breaking TV show Sportsline on Global Television, and currently host of the Hebsy on Sports podcast. "He was crippled at the age of 3 and told he would never walk again. He beat the odds by setting records for the mile-run, and for becoming an Olympic gold medalist in the steeplechase.

"His life is a testament to determination and perseverance in the face of adversity. He was the first disabled athlete to win an Olympic gold medal and should be an inspiration to any person with a disability. He was an early defender of equal rights for women and persons of color. He helped popularize ice hockey and basketball in the United States and could speak nine languages."

George Washington Orton (1873-1958) was born north of the border, but his myriad contributions to Philly sports history are as significant as that of any other individual, beginning with his time as a post-graduate student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a member of the Penn delegation that competed in the 1900 Olympics, Orton won two medals - 45 minutes apart: the gold in the 2,500-meter steeplechase and bronze in the 400-meter hurdles.

Those were but two of his numerous track-and-field accomplishments. He also captured 14 U.S. Outdoor Championships in the 2-Mile Steeplechase and 1-Mile run categories.

The above, on its own, would have justified Orton's induction into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. But his importance extends well beyond the realm of track-and-field. For instance, he is credited with being the person who introduced ice hockey to the city in 1896 while serving as the captain of Penn's first hockey squad.

Because the school lacked a suitable facility, he spearheaded the building of the city's first hockey indoor ice arena. In 1897, Orton founded the Philadelphia Hockey League. The following year he created the Quaker City Hockey Club of the American Amateur Hockey League which, in the pre-NHL days, was considered one of the sport's top showcases.

Interestingly, Hebscher believes Orton himself may bear most of the blame for his lack of universal recognition. Orton, he reasons, "had every reason to toot his own horn, but he never did. Even his family never knew of his incredible sporting accomplishments, not to mention his positive influence on the American sporting public."

Instead, he continues, Orton was much more interested in promoting a healthy lifestyle for Americans than in talking about himself.

"Ultimately, this cost him publicity and name recognition and he quietly faded into the background," says Hebscher, "never to be written or talked about again. Until now."

According to Hebscher, Orton's modesty was such that "even as an author, he referred to himself in the third person. For years, newspapers and websites have incorrectly used a picture of Orton's brother, Irvine, alongside stories about George. This has made him even more obscure."

Hebscher's interest in his subject came from a most surprising place. "'George Washington Orton" was the answer to a trivia question: Who was the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal?

"I consider myself an expert in sports history, and I had never heard of him," says the author. "A Google search turned up very little, and that compelled me to do a deep dive into his life. What I found out was fascinating and unbelievable. How is it that nobody wrote or said anything about this man's incredible accomplishments? How could someone so talented and influential fall through the cracks of history? Even though he is enshrined in seven Halls of Fame, I felt I just had to tell the real story about this remarkable man."

THE GREATEST ATHLETE (You've Never Heard Of) (Dundurn Press) is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and book stores throughout America.

THE GREATEST ATHLETE (You've Never Heard Of)
By Mark Hebscher
Dundurn Press
Biography & Autobiography | Sports
Softcover | 248 pages | 19 illustrations | ISBN 978-1-4597433-5-9 | $21.99
Pub Date: March 12, 2019

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