One of the great pioneer athletes of the region in the early 1900s, Alf Cooper was a born sprinter. Born in 1880 to a prosperous Toronto businessman, the family found themselves in Fort William around 1890 after adverse circumstances cut short their intended West coast move. The first report of Alf's athleticism came in 1891, when a weekly newspaper reported on some unexpected wins at the Dominion Day races. At this time, track meets were a regular part of community events and attracted a great deal of attention; this event featured two races for boys up to fifteen years of age as well as a variety of open track and field contests. Alf, only ten years old at the time, defeated opponents up to five years his senior in the 100 and 220 yard dashes, earning a pair of shoes and a pair of pants for his efforts. He would go on to win many other events in the community before the turn of the century, most notably a 100 yard dash down Cumberland street in honour of the annual public picnic held at Stanley in 1898.

 

In June of 1904, he journeyed to Winnipeg to serve as Fort William's sole representative in the Dominion Track and Field Championships, where he shocked the competition by taking first prize in the 100 yard dash and 220 yard dash, hop-skip and jump, standing high jump, broad jump, and quarter mile run, earning the title of All-Round Amateur Champion. He would return the following year, claiming all the same titles once again. During this period he was also heavily engaged in unofficial races in Fort William, accepting all bets from challengers who felt they could best him in the 100 yard dash. A stream of young athletes flowed in, and thanks to Alf's unrivaled speed, a stream of heavy-hearted, light-pocketed young athletes flowed out.

 

His greatest challenge came in 1908, when Walter Knox arrived from the train in Fort William, eager to race. Knox had defeated a slew of Olympic champions to claim five national titles at a single meet only a year prior, and he felt that he was unbeatable. He challenged Alf under a false name, hoping to entice the backers of the local champion into heavy betting. This strategy worked, and when the betters discovered Knox's identity on the day of the race, many were outraged at the trick and wished to retract their bets. However, the rules stipulated that bets could not be called off on the day of the race, so it was before a large and enthusiastic crowd that the two squared off on the starting line. Against all odds, Alf was the one to break the tape 100 yards later, a feat which earned him the title of unofficial sprinting champion of Canada that September day. Knox, who would go on to coach Canada's 1920 Olympic track team, would return to the Lakehead once more to challenge Alf to both 100 and 220 yard races, but was defeated again at both distances.

 

By this time, though, Alf had become a successful businessman. Fort William's industries flourished during this period, so Alf kept himself busy and prosperous by selling real estate and insurance to the influx of new citizens. Although he would still lace on his spikes now and then to take on a hot-heeled young challenger, his days in the athletic limelight were largely behind him. He did continue to contribute to sport in the community, however; he donated the beautiful Cooper Charity Cup in 1909 to be competed for in a charity soccer tournament, and served as a referee for the Ten-Mile Road Race in 1910 and 1911, the first two years the race was held.

 

From his humble beginnings as a fleet-footed boy running through his father's dairy fields to his latter days as a local sports hero, Alf Cooper proved that athletes from northwestern Ontario are not to be underestimated. Although he never gained the national attention of the likes of Walter Knox, Cooper proved that he could run with the best of them.

 

Inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, October 1, 1983


Alf Cooper

Inducted: 
1983
Sport:
Track
Community:
Fort William
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