This Day in Jewish History A Trailblazing Canadian Athlete Wins Silver

Fanny 'Bobbie' Rosenfeld's sports career was launched after a friend dared her to race a Canadian champion sprinter.

On July 31, 1928, Canadian athlete Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld won the silver medal in the 100-meter dash at the Amsterdam Olympics, a feat that she followed up several days later with the gold medal she and her team earned in the women’s 400-meter relay. These are but two of many athletic accomplishments that earned Rosenfeld recognition by her country’s sportswriters as Canada’s greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

Fanny Rosenfeld (she earned the nickname “Bobbie” for her bobbed haircut) was born in Dnipropretovsk, in what is today Ukraine, on December 28, 1904. She, her parents, Max and Sarah, and her older brother immigrated to Canada when she was still very young, settling in Barrie, Ontario, some 90 kms north of Toronto. There, Max Rosenfeld operated a junk business. In 1922, the family, which now had three additional daughters, moved to Toronto.

Fanny excelled at sports from a young age, playing basketball, ice hockey, softball and tennis. Her prowess in track and field events prompted a friend to dare her to compete against the Canadian champion sprinter Rosa Grosse in a 100-meter race at a picnic in 1923. Rosenfeld won, and her career as a competitive track and field athlete was off to its start.

At the Ontario Ladies Track and Field Championships, in 1925, Rosenfeld came in first in the 220-yard run, discus, shot put, low hurdles and long jump – all in the same day – and second in javelin and 100-yard dash. Additionally, she played basketball on the Toronto YWHA team that twice competed in the national championships, and was a member of city championship teams in ice hockey, softball and baseball. To these we can also add her participation in competitive tennis, lacrosse, golf and speed skating. (A short Internet biography of her at the Jewish Women’s Archive site quotes one source as suggesting that, “The most efficient way to summarize Bobbie Rosenfeld’s career... is to say that she was not good at swimming.”)

Women were first permitted to compete in the Olympics in 1928, and that was on a trial basis. Already in the Olympic trials, Rosenfeld set national records in both the running and standing broad jump, and in the 100-meter dash and the discus. Initially, she was slated to compete in the two latter events in Amsterdam, but when it turned out they were scheduled for the same day, July 31, she took part in only the running event. There, in the final, she and the American runner Betty Robinson crossed the finish line at the same time. In the end, the judges ruled that Robinson was the winner (many spectators disagreed), and Rosenfeld took the silver medal.

Two days later, Rosenfeld was unexpectedly entered into the 800-meter run. It was not an event she had trained for, but the team’s coach wanted her in the race in order to encourage her teammate Jean Thompson, who held the world record for the 800, but had injured herself shortly before the games opened. Both women qualified for the finals, and after the first of two laps, Thompson, although running with a bandage, seemed set to come in third. But after another runner bumped against her, Thompson began to fall back. That’s when Rosenfeld suddenly moved up from last place, passing four runners to draw up next to her faltering teammate. Rosenfeld ran beside Thompson to the end, offering her encouragement throughout the homestretch. Then, just as they approached the finish line, Rosenfeld fell behind, letting Thompson cross before her. Thompson came in fourth place, not good enough for a medal, but still fast enough to break her previous world record. Rosenfeld finished fifth, though many believed that she could have easily finished higher, perhaps even in one of the top three places.

Finally, on August 5, Rosenfeld ran the first leg in the 4 x 100 women’s relay, in which the team broke both the Olympic and world records, winning the gold. Canada’s women returned home that year with the highest number of medals of any country.

It may not sound like it, but Rosenfeld also held a day job: She worked as a stenographer at the Patterson chocolate factory in Toronto. In her free time, she skated with the Toronto Patterson Pats hockey team (sponsored by her employer), where her skill as a center made her a nationally known star.

By the end of the 1920s, however, Rosenfeld had developed arthritis, and she found herself confined to bed for eight months, followed by some months on crutches. She did make a comeback that enabled her to play softball in 1931, but finally was forced to retire from sports for good in 1933. She continued working as a coach, however, leading her nation’s women’s track and field at the Commonwealth Games in London, in 1934, for example, before she took a job at the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1936. The next year, the paper launched her column about women’s sports, called the Feminine Sports Reel. Rosenfeld wrote the column for 18 years, and continued working at the paper until 1966.

Bobbie Rosenfeld didn’t marry or have children. Although most of her biographies avoid the subject altogether, she apparently had a female partner. Journalist Robert Fulford, who early in his career was a sports reporter and colleague of Rosenfeld’s at the Globe and Mail, once wrote about her: “Bobbie was the first lesbian I knew as such, and every day her moment of greatest happiness — happiness I could see her almost physically trying to hide, for reasons it took me years to understand — coincided with her companion’s arrival at her office to pick her up after work. One day this lady mentioned that she and Bobbie were looking for a new apartment and needed two bedrooms — one for Bobbie’s trophies.”

Rosenfeld was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1948, and after Canada’s sportswriters voted her the top female athlete of the half-century in 1950, her name was attached to an award given each year to the country’s finest woman athlete. In 1996, her portrait, kneeling in the starting position for a sprint race, appeared on a 45-cent Canadian postage stamp.

Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld died on November 14, 1969, in Toronto.