Canada 150

Harry Jerome: Race against time

He owned a share of the 100-metre world record while still a teenager and went on to win an Olympic medal, but Canadian sprinting legend Harry Jerome struggled to outrun the prejudice of his day.

Canadian sprinting legend struggled to outrun the prejudice of his day

Today, a bronze statue of Harry Jerome stands in Vancouver's Stanley Park, but the Canadian sprinting icon wasn't always treated with such reverence in his own time. (Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer and auto racing's Villeneuve family. We've also looked back at the Richard Riot and explored Babe Ruth's Canadian origins.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.


When Harry Jerome tore the quadriceps tendon in his right leg in 1962, it severed a connection with his knee and, most believed, cut Jerome himself off from his sprinting career.

Today, the injury connects us to a time when one of Canada's greatest athletes was also one of its most poorly treated. Not in a medical sense — Dr. Hector Gillespie, a Vancouver-based orthopedic surgeon, used a new technique on the tear that gave Jerome a chance to pull off something of a medical miracle.

Rather, in a personal sense, as the sprinter ran full tilt into many ignorant media members while carrying a shy personality and a strong belief in his talent that could be somewhat grating for those who didn't know him well.

'No support'

Henry Winston Jerome was born in Prince Albert, Sask., in 1940, moving almost right away to Winnipeg where his father was a railway porter. At the age of 12 it was on to North Vancouver where some of the locals did not want them there and tried to block the house sale. 

Jerome was on track to be a sprinting star from an early age. (National Film Board of Canada)

Jerome was good at sports. From an early age he was, along with his sister Valerie (who also made the Olympics), pegged as a future star on the track.

While still only 19, he earned a share of the 100-metre world record, with Germany's Armin Hary, and he held the 100-yard mark — success not seen by a Canadian sprinter since Percy Williams won Olympic gold in 1928.
 
Off to Rome for the 1960 Olympics, where a confluence of poor planning, bad luck, untrained media and a few idiots who should have known better ruined the relationship between the young runner and many in the national press.

Arriving late for the event (local traffic) and not getting a proper warmup, Jerome looked strong in the semifinal until his right hamstring blew and he had to shut down. Upset, he walked by the press into the dressing room and didn't come back. 

There were no communications people in those days, no one to deal with the media, and the runner's own coach wasn't at the Games because money wasn't available.

"In those days, there was no support," said Ted Reynolds, now the late CBC Sports journalist, in a 2000 interview with this writer. "You had a coach, and you were very lucky to have your own coach at those meets. These people, very young, had never really been exposed to the media."

Labelled

So some reporters, with no understanding of athletics, began to speculate about the injury.

"That was when the quitter label was put on him," said Reynolds, who was based in Vancouver, covered amateur sports extensively and knew Jerome and his sister well. 

The narrative was pushed by a Montreal journalist "who really came down on him hard. The British press picked it up, and he got this label hung on him without anybody realizing he had a very, very badly pulled hamstring."

A profile of the career of sprinter Harry Jerome. 6:19

It took an hour for word to come out about the injury, but by that time the damage had been done, despite the fact the charge was patently ridiculous — Jerome had been leading the race at the time of the pull up.

At the same time, an incendiary column by a Weekend Magazine writer on the scene accused the young Canadian of snubbing him for a photo shoot with his sister — one that would have been held in 44-degree weather, on a hill overlooking Rome, while the Jeromes were still training.

"The effect of his sheer bad manners placed the young negro down at the bottom as an athletic ambassador for Canada," the columnist wrote. 

They might not have been able to pick up the meaning back in 1960, but you can hear it loud and clear now. 

Jerome, right, joined gold medallist Robert Hayes, centre, and silver medallist Enrique Figuerola on the medal stand for the men's 100 at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. (Allsport Hulton/Getty Images)

The comeback

Jerome recovered and was back to his form by late 1962, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia. But there, running with a high temperature, he suffered a massive tear of the quad. Even Jerome didn't realize it right away, only that he was suddenly without power halfway down the track.

Once again, some suggested he had quit — one making the mistake of saying it loudly in the press box where a young Canadian writer (never identified) threatened to punch the guy out if he didn't shut up. Another, an Aussie, met Jerome at the airport going out and accused the runner of ducking the 220-yard final, a tale that found its way home before Harry did.

Canada's star went to Dr. Gillespie for a procedure that is common now but new then. The muscle was reattached to the knee and Jerome was told his chances of running again were minimal.

Not to Harry. Working at the University of Oregon under the guidance of the famous Bill Bowerman (a co-founder of Nike), the comeback was on. Big time.

Helped every step of the way by his wife, Wendy (who was white, and that created problems of its own in Oregon), Jerome set new records, including the 60-yard world indoor mark, on his way to Tokyo's Olympics in 1964 where he once again pulled on the national singlet.

Bob Hayes of the United States was by now the favourite and lived up to the billing by winning gold with his unique running style. A photo finish for silver was eventually given to Enrique Figuerola of Cuba, with Harry getting the bronze.

It is still considered one of the greatest comebacks in track and field history.


Not good enough?

Those four years for Harry Jerome came at a time when civil rights marches and the fight for equality were front-page news in North America, and as Charles Officer's 2010 film The Mighty Jerome shows, there certainly was a racial aspect to the way the runner was treated.

Jerome ran four more years, lowering his 100 -yard mark and winning gold at the Commonwealth Games (1966) and Pan Am Games (1967) and making the final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (seventh) as his career was ending. 

It's a photo finish and a gold medal for Canadian Harry Jerome in the 100 metre final 3:32

Harry Jerome lived a short life, working as a teacher in Vancouver, then in Ottawa for a while as part of a national task force on amateur sport before coming back to B.C. to work for the government there.

Always, he stayed involved in track and field development by helping with young people of all ages. 

He died in 1982 of a brain seizure at the corner of Lonsdale Avenue and 23rd Street in North Vancouver, while riding as a passenger in a car.

Each year, he is remembered through a prestigious Vancouver track event — the Harry Jerome Classic — the Harry Jerome Awards for members of Canada's black community, and by those who ran with him, and knew him, as a giant in this country's athletic history.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jerome died while riding as a passenger across the Lions Gate Bridge.
    May 26, 2017 8:19 PM ET

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