There is a long and rich history of sport participation in Canada. Many of the sports and games Canadians currently play can be traced back to the early days of Canadian history.
In the nineteenth century, sport and games in Canada were not highly organized. Few people had the time or money for playing games. The harsher aspects of everyday life took precedence. However, around the turn of the century, several amateur sport organizations emerged. These groups attempted to organize sports competitions, set rules, and develop teams and leagues. As a result, organized competitions quickly grew in number around this period in time, especially in the 50-year period between 1870 and 1920.
Some of the earliest organized sports in Canada were rifle shooting, rowing, track and field, rugby football, skating, cricket, and golf, among others. Many of these sports were imports of sporting traditions from Great Britain. This made sense given that many of the leaders of early amateur sports organizations were recent British immigrants to Canada.
An example of early Canadian sport can be seen in the sport of rowing. Imported from the rowing traditions in England, rowing was one of the most famous sports in early Canadian history. Although relatively few Canadians actually rowed themselves, many participated as spectators. Rowing races between Canadian oarsmen and between Canadians and international competitors were famous events. Also, gambling or betting on the outcome of races attracted many spectators.
The most famous Canadian athlete of the times was Ned Hanlan (1855-1908). An oarsman, Hanlan remains to this day one of the most famous athletes in Canadian history. In fact, during his life he was famous throughout the world. A Canadian and world champion several times over, Hanlan was a fierce competitor. However, Hanlan was also famous for his appeal to spectators. He made a regular practice of gaining a seemingly insurmountable lead over his rival and then stopping to wave at the crowds on the shoreline. He would even slow down during a race, allowing his competition to catch up to him, only to take the win at the last moment. These exploits made Hanlan one of the first showmen in sport; he recognized the importance of the entertainment value of sport.
Sport in Canada has developed rapidly since Hanlan’s time. Today, Canada has a complex system of amateur sports organizations and professional leagues. In addition, in the 1960s the federal government of Canada became directly involved in the pursuit of healthy lifestyles and sporting traditions of Canadians. Today, the government provides funds for elite amateur athletes preparing for World Championships and the Olympic Games. The athletic role models produced by these government programs are crucial to Canadians in general.