'For the Athletic Honor of the Maple Leaf': The Photographic Identity of the 'Lost Olympians'-Canada's Olympic 'Stadium Team,' London, England, 1908
Barney, Robert K., Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies
On 2 February 2009, Matt Quinn, the Public Affairs Officer of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Western Ontario ("Western"), received an e-mail from David Parkes of Toronto, father of a prospective "Western" student. Parkes, in his perusal of "Western" promotional literature, learned of the International Centre for Olympic Studies (ICOS). Parkes' message to Quinn read: "I'm not sure if you are the right person to contact. If not I hope you can point me in the right direction. I have an original photograph of what I believe to be the Canadian track and field team from the 1908 Olympics (see attached). I am hoping to identify my great uncle, Robert Irving Parkes, who participated in the 800 metre event. Is there an available resource that might help me identify the athletes in this photo?" Quinn forwarded the 'Parkes message' to ICOS, together with Parkes' 'see attached' photo (page 140).
In Search of Images Past
In responding to David Parkes, it was requested that he send us a family photograph of his "Great-Uncle Bob," along with the original of the 1908 Team Photo. The requested pictures arrived in short order. (1) Our exercise was to match the family photo with a corresponding persona in the Olympic team photo. It took a small ICOS team just about three minutes to identify Robert Irving Parkes in the team portrait (second row from top, fifth from right) of what David Parkes referred to as the 'Canadian track and field team from the 1908 Olympics.'
At that point, curiosity and the historian's desire to probe further got the better of us. The exercise of the Robert Irving Parkes identification quickly extended into an examination aimed at attempting to identify other team-members in the picture, if possible, the entire group. (2) Why was this important? It had never been done before. No known athlete-identified picture exists of the single largest group of Canadian athletes photographed at the 1908 Games, a group which formed the main contingent of the nation's first Olympic team. Canada's Olympic history deserves to know who they were, how they qualified for Olympic distinction, what they accomplished, and what their impact might have been on Canada's Olympic legacy.
By good fortune, the David Parkes e-mail request for an identification of his great-uncle occurred just prior to the University's prelude announcements of ICOS's 20th Anniversary Celebration and commensurate delivery of the 2009 John Howard Crocker Address, eventually given by this author on the subject of Canada's First IOC Member: John Hanbury-Williams (see the News section in this issue of Olympika). The two subjects, Hanbury-Williams and the 1908 Canadian Olympic Team, were intricately linked. Hanbury-Williams, appointed by Governor-General Earl Grey, headed what came to be Canada's first Olympic Committee, initially named the Canadian Central Olympic Committee.
Western News (3) learned of the 'mystery photograph' and the dilemma of identifying the historical athletes pictured, and subsequently published the 'Olympic Team' photograph. Within hours the story came to the attention of the local London (Ontario) radio, television, and print media. In short order, the story (and the picture) reached Toronto, and hence, the national media circles of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). The burgeoning media interest, of course, was driven by the fact that almost anything "Canadian Olympic" was front and center in the media as the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games approached. Amid the media diffusion process, the story reached the attention of several ancestral relatives of 1908 Canadian Olympic athletes, in one case, an aged son, in others, less aged grandsons, granddaughters, and grandnephews, and, in one case, a much younger great-grandson and great-granddaughter. All were eager to share their family's heirloom artifacts--aged scrapbooks, withered and often dog-eared photographs, ephemera artifacts, memorabilia, and personal memories of their family ancestors who had been part of the 1908 Canadian Olympic team. …