Edward (Ned) Hanlan (1855-1908) was one of the most important athletes in Canadian history. Hanlan, an oarsman, helped shape the direction of Canadian sport in its early, formative years. His combination of athletic success and popularity with rowing spectators helped promote the cause of rowing and professional sport.
In the late-nineteenth century, rowing was one of the, if not the, most popular sports in Canada. The sport received as much if not more press coverage and general public interest than any other sport. In addition, the sport’s long history in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the United States developed into well-organized national and international championships, including one of the first regularly held World Championships in any sport. In fact, Hanlan was a regular winner of World Championship titles.
Part of the popularity of rowing involved gambling and lucrative prizes. Spectators regularly bet on single sculling, in much the same way they do on horse racing today. Hanlan quickly rose to fame in the late-nineteenth century through a combination of careful financial planning of his athletic career and his mastery of the sport. Perhaps his most ingenious invention was the now-common “sliding seat.” By fixing wheels onto a wooden seat, Hanlan gained an advantage over his competitors, who slid back and forth in the boat on grease. The extra use of his legs translated into greater boat speed for Hanlan.
Hanlan was also note-worthy for his methods of gaining popularity with fans. Recognizing the importance of the entertainment value of sport, Hanlan would regularly wave to the crowds and perform rowing “tricks” such as removing his hands from the oars in the middle of the race. He was even known to fake an injury in the middle of a race, only to recover just in time to win the race. Of course, the additional purpose of this strategy was to raise gambling odds, thus making himself and his financial handlers wealthier from his victories.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Hanlan won and then successfully defended his World Championship title seven times. He also competed in commercial exhibitions and rowing tours around the world. After his competitive career ended, Hanlan went on to coach younger oarsmen in two North American universities: Toronto and Columbia. So famous was Hanlan that one major newspaper in Canada claimed he was the single greatest agent for attracting new immigrants to the young country. Today, a bronze statue stands in Toronto in honour of his success, and an island just off the shores of the city of Toronto is named after Hanlan.