Harry Jerome: Canadian track hero

Paul Salnek
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The fastest man in the world must have been so fast most of us missed him.

Harry Jerome talking with Muhammad Ali (left) in this undated photo

The fastest man in the world must have been so fast most of us missed him.

Track legend, Olympic athlete and Canadian athletic hero Harry Jerome will be inducted into the Canada Athletics hall of fame in memorium in the class of 2012.

Jerome was born on Sept. 30 1940 in Prince Albert. He was the grandson of John Howard, who represented Canada in the 1912 Olympics and was a railway porter.

At the age of 12, Jerome moved with his family to North Vancouver in 1951, and Harry met his lifelong friend Paul Winn at high school in 1957.  They were the only two African Canadians in the school and soon became friends.

Winn said they had that in common and had to deal with some bullies.

 “There were a couple of jerks in the school we had to deal with, people trying to bully you. I was just the type where I didn’t back down from bullies and Harry was very quiet. We were like ying and yang.”

Harry excelled at many sports in high school such as baseball, football and hockey.

“I think that athletics meant a lot to him. We played rugby in school, we played soccer, he played football, I didn’t. We used to go ice skating, play hockey and anything athletic he really enjoyed it,” Winn said.

Jerome started running track in 1957 and Winn said it was his hard work and determination that turned him into a track star.

“In 1957 he would be what I call mediocre sprinter,” Winn said. “But something happened in the summer of 1957 and 1958 rolled around and suddenly Jerome was not worrying about running 10 seconds flat over 100 yards. He suddenly was running like 9.5.  A whole half second faster then anybody else. Then he became focused on track and field and track became his No. 1 sport.”

At the age of 18, Jerome broke his first record, which was a Canadian record in the 220-yard sprint held by Percy Williams for 31 years.

In 1960, Jerome would break the world record for the 100 metres with the time 9.9 but officials couldn’t believe the time and rounded it up to 10.0, which tied Jerome for the world record with German Armin Hary. At the time there was no electric timing; everything was hand timed.

“No Canadian had ever run that fast in world records since Percy Williams. The world record was 10 flat at the time. I think they just decided to round it off at 10 flat, just because I don’t think they believed that Harry could run that fast,” Winn said. “He was the smoothest and relaxed runner on the field where I think that may have coloured their opinion. It didn’t look like he was straining he was just gliding. I can remember that race like it was yesterday.”

In that era, officials had to check the wind and measure the track after the race to make sure it was 100 metres. After the measurement it was revealed that the track was on a half-inch incline. “So he was running uphill, and I always told people ‘man Harry was running up hill when he got his world record,” Winn said.

Around this time, Jerome met another soon to be close friend, teammate and fellow Olympian Bruce Kidd.

“He had something of a reputation to be kind of a cocky, arrogant person. I guess my first impression was that he was quite unlike that at all. He was cordial. He was very funny, he was friendly so we hit it off right from the beginning,” Kidd said.

Jerome would go to school at the University of Oregon and be coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman.

 After tying the world record in Saskatoon, Jerome was starting to be looked at as one of the top sprinters at the 1960 Summer Olympic games. This would mark Jerome’s struggle on his pursuit of perfection.

Jerome pulled a muscle in the 100-meter semi-finals and would be out of competition. Despite being a world record holder, he didn’t get any love from the media, which bashed him any chance they got, like calling him cocky.

Winn said he was focused, not cocky.

“When we were getting warmed up for a race. He didn’t have time to talk with me it had nothing to do with cockiness. It had to do with concentrating on the job at hand,” Winn said. “He did not like to be bothered by the media. People would come up to him in the middle of warming up for an event and they would say ‘how do you like our city’ or ‘how do you feel today’ you know he would get a little prickly.”

Jerome would soon become known as the world’s fastest man, breaking records in the 100-metre, 60-metre dash and 100-yard dash as well as helped to set a world record in the 4x 100 metre relay throughout his career.

In the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, Jerome tore a thigh muscle during the race and couldn’t continue. The injury was close to career ending, with doctors telling him he may never race again. After the Games in Perth the media lashed out again.

“So he was running uphill, and I always told people ‘man Harry was running up hill when he got his world record,” Paul Winn

“They called him a quitter. On a big Olympic event they ignored all the events that he ran in the summer and in the fall. Beating all the top sprinters in the world, they just seemed to ignore those things,” Winn said.

Kidd said the bad press was racially motivated.

“I can think of no other reason. I was a white boy and I said what I thought too and people from time to time criticized me. It was nothing like Harry got, it was entirely due to racism,” Kidd said.

Winn explains it was a different time.

“When a black athlete or black person kind of showed confidence and didn’t just turn around and say ‘oh yes sir, yes sir, whatever you like three bags full’. They then accused you of being uppity, so you’re acting outside of your station boy. ‘I asked you a question, you should be ready to answer because I have asked it,’ you know, and they wouldn’t treat a white athlete that way.”

Despite the devastating injury, with his extreme strong work ethic, Jerome overcame the obstacles to take a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo, with some calling it the biggest comeback in track and field history.

Winn said Jerome was happy but it still wasn’t good enough for him.

“He was happy with it, but he wasn’t ecstatic with it. It wasn’t gold; he was in the pursuit of excellence. If you don’t show up to win don’t show up at all, you accept where you finish,” Winn said. “I mean you don’t get all disgusted because you finish third in the world. The point was gold would have been better and in Jamaica he got gold, he was quite happy with that.”

Jerome was a fierce competitor for 10 years in a sport where average longevity is half that. He retired in 1969 with six world records and represented Canada in three Olympic Games, two Pan American Games and two Commonwealth Games.

Kidd said his career was impressive.

“His persistence, you know, he came back from two terrible injuries. He continued to run at a very high level year in and year out. I don’t think in his era there was anybody who was as successful in such a sustained way over both 100 and the 200,” Kidd Said.

Winn said Jerome strived to be No. 1.

“I think it was his drive and determination to pursue excellence, as he used to say. He would train like a fiend. Harry always wanted to be the best. When we show up at a track meet, we are there to win. We are not there to just compete. That was the whole point; if you’re not ready to win you might as well stay home.”

After his retirement Jerome was invited to work for the Federal Ministry of Sport, and he also started the B.C. sports awards program.

He then received the Order of Canada in 1971 and was named B.C. Athlete of the Century.

Jerome died of a brain aneurysm in Dec. 1982 at the age of 42.

Winn recalls the lunch that they had on the day he died as a fond memory.

“One of my fondest memories is the day he died we had lunch together and it was a group of us. I looked across the table and said to him ‘you know Harry I love you. I just think you are wonderful’ and he got all embarrassed, because there was about six to seven people around the table,” Winn said. “That was a fond memory because I was glad that I told him how I felt, while he was alive that I loved him and I was proud of him.”

Since his death, a statue has been erected in his honour in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Kidd said he likes to visit the statue when he is in Vancouver.

“He was a wonderful man and I am still saddened very much that he is no longer with us. Every time I go to Vancouver, I go to his statue and talk to him. It’s still a huge loss.”

 The University of Oregon, B.C and Prince Albert all have facilities that bear his name, along with the Harry Jerome awards and the Harry Jerome International Track Classic that is held annually.

Jerome was a big advocate for youth keeping active and provided athletic equipment for children who couldn’t afford it when he was alive.

“That would be his legacy. He would want kids to be active at what ever level they could be; it didn’t matter what it was. It could’ve been table tennis as long as they were active and pursued it,” Winn said.

Winn said Jerome’s life delivers an important lesson to young people.

“One of the things they should be able to learn is that they can achieve anything they want as long as they put the time and energy in to it.”


Organizations: University of Oregon, Commonwealth Games, Federal Ministry of Sport University of Oregon, B.C and Prince Albert

Geographic location: Canada, North Vancouver, Perth Saskatoon Vancouver Australia Tokyo Jamaica Stanley Park

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