BORN, Russia • 28 December 1905
DIED, Toronto, Ontario • 14 November 1969
PRECISELY WHEN THE YOUNG WOMAN WHO GREW up just north of Toronto decided to call herself Bobbie, rather than her given name Fanny, is not clear, but it was a characteristic decision. Rosenfeld spent her entire life charting her own course, and in the process she blazed new paths for Canadian women.
Bobbie Rosenfeld was the best woman athlete Canada ever produced, but it was the hurdles she overcame in society to achieve that designation which made her influential by example. Born in Russia to Jewish parents, Rosenfeld came to Canada as a baby when her family settled in Barrie, Ontario.
Although she showed uncommon athletic prowess as a child, everybody was shocked when, barely a teenager, she beat the reigning Canadian champion in a 100-yard sprint. At once the nation realized that Barrie had produced a child prodigy. When the town could not supply the calibre of competition Rosenfeld required, however, she moved to Toronto at the age of sixteen.
Women’s sport in Canada was just then reaching a crucial juncture. The Olympics had not yet found room for women, and there were few international opportunities for accomplished female athletes to face each other. But locally, women in several sports were becoming mini-celebrities in Toronto.
Rosenfeld was easily the best of them all. After working days at a local chocolate factory, she filled her spare time playing basketball, softball, and hockey. Invariably, she domi¬ nated whatever sport she played. Her greatest success came as an individual in track and field. At various points in the 1920s she held Canadian records in the 100-yard and 220-yard sprints, and was the best in the country in the long jump, shot put, and discus.
By 1925 Rosenfeld was a national figure and a world- ranked track star. The Canadian public viewed this develop¬ ment cautiously: women’s sports were undoubtedly thrilling to watch, and Rosenfeld was a one-in-a-million talent, but there remained a sense that sports violated the strict unwritten code of feminine behaviour prevalent in buttoned-up Canadian society. Athletics might “loosen ladies’ morals,” one observer complained.
Accepted opinion was best summed up by the comment that many men keenly watched what they would not allow their own daughters to participate in. Rosenfeld, an immigrant daughter perhaps unburdened by the gender guilt of the upper and middle classes, ignored the debate, and continued to run and jump faster and higher.
The 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam were the first to include women. Rosenfeld’s performance in several events made her the best-known Canadian woman of her time and gained her the mantle of national heroine. The key to this acceptance was success: Rosenfeld narrowly missed winning the 100 metre final, but she led the Canadian team to a gold medal and world record in the 100 metre relay.
She also placed fifth in the 800 metre race, an event she had not prepared for. Overall, in the few events open to them, the Canadian women dominated the games. For a country only tentatively asserting its identity, the success of Rosenfeld and her team-mates produced a burst of national pride.
A jubilant crowd of 300,000 greeted the team’s return to Toronto. And an unspoken lesson had been learned: athletics and women sports put Canada on the international stage, so perhaps the combination was not such a terrible thing after all.Rosenfeld retired in 1933 and later gained a job as a sports reporter and columnist with a Toronto newspaper.
She was not the first woman sports journalist in Canada, but she was the most famous. She was always opinionated and occa¬ sionally controversial. Her views mattered, and whether it was women’s sports or men’s, people remembered who Rosenfeld was and paid attention to what she wrote.
Poor health ended her newspaper career prematurely in 1966. Canada was a different place for women by then. Rosenfeld, though hardly an activist for women’s rights, had something to do with the change. As a successful athlete and journalist in a time when these endeavours were the domain of men, her influence came from deeds, not words.