Boxing Gold: Canada’s Rarest Metal

Winning an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize for amateur athletes. It represents the zenith of achievement because of how many athletes are chasing the same prize. Winning gold is even more challenging in a sport like boxing because of its single-elimination format. There is no room for error because losing once means losing out on your dreams for at least four more years.  

When it comes to amateur boxing, Canada is far from a historical powerhouse. In its history Canada has only won 17 boxing medals, including three gold. By comparison, The United States has captured 118 total medals, including 50 gold, while Cuba has won 78 medals, including 41 gold. 

There are many factors that can explain the United States and Cuba’s sustained dominance in amateur boxing, two of which are the large pool of athletes available as well as the quality of instruction provided to them. Having highly-respected trainers like Kenny Adams and Alcides Sagarra at the helm of their respective countries’ amateur programs helped yield countless Olympic medalists. 

Also, in both countries, there are many boxers competing for limited spots on the Olympic squad. In Cuba in particular, boxing competes with baseball in terms of popularity, which provides a steady stream of talented fighters in the amateur pipeline. With such fierce competition, the cream rises to the top and only the very best athletes get to represent their country on the grandest stage. 

Conversely, Canada’s national sport is hockey, and it is clearly the number one sport that young Canadians flock to. As a result, there are substantially less kids that choose to pursue boxing. Even with highly qualified coaches, Canada doesn’t have the same quantity of athletes walking into boxing gyms on a regular basis. As a result, it has only been able to produce a handful of Olympic champions over the years. It is precisely because it is such a rare achievement that Canada’s boxing gold medalists deserve to be recognized and remembered. 

Of Canada’s three gold medalists, the one most known to boxing fans is Lennox Lewis. Lewis would have a Hall-of-Fame career as a professional, but his amateur success began in Canada. Lewis grew up in London, England but moved to Kitchener, Ontario, at 12. He attended high school at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute, where he excelled in several sports, including football, soccer, and basketball. But Lewis decided to focus on boxing as his primary sport, and that dedication yielded remarkable amateur success under the guidance of trainers Arnie Boehm and Adrian Teodorescu. 

As an 18-year-old, Lewis competed at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where he lost in the quarter-finals to American Tyrell Biggs, the eventual gold medalist. But Lewis was determined to achieve Olympic glory, and he would do just that in the 1988 Seoul Games as a super-heavyweight. He stopped Riddick Bowe in the second round in the finals, and in doing so, Lewis became the first Canadian to win boxing gold in 56 years. 

“Words cannot describe the way I feel at the moment. This victory was for my mother, first of all, for the Canadian people, and for all the guys on the boxing team. We were a unit all the way, and each guy shares in this moment.” [1] 

Lewis further elaborated about how much it meant to him to represent his country in victory. “It’s a big honor. I really believed that it showed it’s possible for Canadians to win boxing gold medals. I knew I could win for Canada. That was my attitude.” [2]  

When Lewis captured gold in Seoul, he ended a 56-year gold-medal drought for Canada, dating back to 1932. In those Los Angeles Olympics, Toronto native Horace “Lefty” Gwynne won the bantamweight title. On his route to gold, Gwynne beat Vito Melia of Italy, Filipino Jose Villanueva, and Germany’s Hans Ziglarski. 

“It was a great feeling. Standing there, knowing you had won for your country.” [3] 

But back in the 1930’s, winning an Olympic gold medal didn’t kick-start a professional career the way it did in 1976 for legends like Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I came back from winning the gold, there was no parade down Yonge St. My father had to go out and knock on doors,” explained Gwynne [4].

“I’m not complaining, you know. That’s just the way times have changed. Some of these kids can come out of these Olympics and make millions. Me, if I hadn’t found a regular job, I’d have starved to death.” [5]

Gwynne doesn’t rue the fact that he never earned the money and acclaim that later became the norm for Olympic champions. “I’m all right. Got my family. Always got the price of a round of golf and a couple of beers. And I’ve got my medal. Three ounces of gold. They can never take that away from me.” [3] 

According to the Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, in which Gwynne was inducted in 1955, “Lefty” started boxing at the ripe age of five, when he would spar with an older brother using socks as gloves. They were in England at the time because that’s where their father, Jack, had gone to enlist during World War I. Jack brought his boys from basecamp to basecamp, “where they would put on boxing shows for the troops. Horace and his older, but smaller, brother would duke it out while the fatigue-clad audience tossed shillings their way.” 

Jack’s plan was for Lefty to be either a jockey or a boxer[6]. Since the age of 13, he had spent much time doing odd jobs at the racetrack in Toronto, which led him to compete in races. But once he started to put on weight and surpassed the optimum weight for a jockey, he decided to focus on boxing. 

After winning gold in 1932, Gwynne turned professional, and he competed until 1939, during which he compiled a 38-8-2 record. After retiring, he went back to work as a jockey’s agent, which he did until 1953. He then worked for many years as a supervisor for the Toronto Recreation Department. Gwynne died in 2001 at the age of 88. 

Last but not least, the first Canadian boxing gold medalist was Bert Schneider, whose full name was Julius Gustav Albert Schneider. Schneider won gold in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. To do so, he had to conquer South Africa’s Joe Thomas, Norway’s Aage Steen, American Fred Kolberg, and Alex Ireland of Great Britain. The 1920 Olympic boxing team was Canada’s most successful, hauling in a total of five medals — 30% of the country’s total boxing medals. 

Schneider was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1897, but moved to Montreal at nine because his father, a metallurgist, got a job with a Montreal steel plant. Schneider played many sports as a kid, including swimming, diving, skiing, and water polo. 

“I’d always been a good swimmer, and I joined the Montreal Swim Club. Some of the fellows joined La Casquette Club for boxing, and I went along,” recalled Schneider. “There, I got a lot of my training from Gene Brousseau, the classiest boxer around Montreal. When the Casquette Club broke up, a few of us joined the boxing classes at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (M.A.A.A.). I won the welter championship of the M.A.A.A., the city championship, and then the championship of Canada twice. I never lost a fight as an amateur.”

According to the M.A.A.A. newsletter, Schneider was “always in condition, he was lightning fast, a solid puncher. He had the ideal physique for a boxer, powerful arms and shoulders, and slim legs.” [7]

Those attributes propelled him to become Olympic champion. However, he wasn’t able to translate his amateur success to the professional game. According to the Canadian Olympic website, he turned pro in 1921 and contested for one major title in his career, losing in a bid for the Canadian welterweight championship. Schneider retired in 1928 with a final record of 19-23-2, according to BoxRec. 

Schneider once sparred three rounds with Jack Dempsey in an exhibition in Windsor, Ontario. It wasn’t all fun and games as Schneider had to have two teeth extracted because of the blows he absorbed from Dempsey. Years later, Schneider explained that after the three-rounder was over, Dempsey said to him: “Did I hurt you?” to which he replied, “No, did I hurt you?” Dempsey replied, “No.” “One of us was lying,” said Bert, “and it wasn’t Dempsey.” [8]

When his boxing career ended, Schneider worked as a border patrolman for the United States Department of Immigration for over 30 years. After retiring from service in 1960, he returned to live in Montreal with his wife, Mary Ellen Henderson. Schneider passed away in 1986 but was at least alive when he was honored with the induction into the Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1975. 

With only three Olympic boxing gold medals to its name, Canada’s amateur boxing champions are a rare and precious bunch. Hopefully, another Canadian pugilist can reach the pinnacle of amateur boxing once again soon. If they want motivation, they need look no further than to Bert Schneider, Lefty Gwynne, and Lennox Lewis, who achieved that historic accomplishment. If it’s been done before, it can be done again.  



I want to thank Ruth Cowan of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and Elizabeth Bitar of the Montreal Athletic Association, who provided print resources and pictures for this piece. 

Works Cited

[1] Another quick knockout gives Lewis Olympic gold- Jim Proudfoot, Toronto Star, 1988

[2] Heroes come home- Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun, 1988

[3] Lefty won Olympic gold for Canada in 1932- George Gamester, Toronto Star, 1992

[4] Just desserts for Gwynne- Vicky Bassett, Toronto Sun, 1984

[5] Lefty Gwynne recalls gold and Olympics 52 years ago- Jim Proudfoot, 1984

[6] Lefty was left without work- Diana Zlomislic, Toronto Sun 

[7] The M.A.A.A. and the Olympics in The Winged Wheel– John Dudgeon, 1976

[8] Bert Schneider, boxing champion- Lloyd McGowan