Black History Month: The enduring grace of Dr. Phil Edwards

Known as 'The Man of Bronze,' Dr. Phil Edwards won five Olympic bronze medals for Canada starting at the 1928 Olympic Games. He also was the first black graduate from McGill Univerity Medical School.

Dr. Phil Edwards was a Guyanese immigrant who represented Canada in three Olympic Games between 1928 and ’36.

A middle-distance runner, Edwards earned the nickname “Man of Bronze” by winning five bronze medals across those three Games. He was Canada’s most decorated Olympian until short-track speed-skater Marc Gagnon tied his mark in 2002. Cindy Klassen later surpassed it with her sixth medal during the 2006 Winter Games.

Though he wasn’t representing Canada but his native British Guiana (now Guyana) at the time, Edwards, competing in the 880-yard event, was the first black man to win a gold medal at the British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games).

Edwards really came into his own as an Olympic-calibre athlete after high school, when he moved to the United States and enrolled at New York University. Not being a U.S. citizen, he couldn’t compete for his new home. But America’s loss was Canada’s gain.

As a British subject, Edwards could compete for any country within the Commonwealth. In 1927, Canadian Olympic track-and-field team manager Melville Marks Robinson invited him to compete for Canada at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam as part of the 4×400-metre relay team, launching a Canadian athletic legacy that’s continued to endure.

Edwards was the first-ever recipient of the coveted Lou Marsh Trophy and has been immortalized in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. The award given to Athletics Canada’s track athlete of the year is named in his honour.

While competing for Canada, Edwards enrolled in McGill University’s medical school and became the school’s first black graduate in 1936, right before competing in the Berlin Games. After the Olympics, he postponed the start of his medical career to serve with the Canadian army during World War II, rising to the rank of captain. When the war concluded, he returned to Montreal and earned a graduate medical diploma as a specialist in tropical diseases before joining the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Edwards’s knowledge of tropical diseases made him an authority on the subject known worldwide.

He passed away on Sept. 6, 1971 at the age of 63.

For Black History Month, Sportsnet caught up with Edwards’s daughter, Girija Edwards, to talk about her father’s life and legacy both on and off the track, and the impact he’s had on future generations of black Canadian athletes.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sportsnet: Why is it important for Canadians to remember who your father was and what he did?
Girija Edwards: There are a lot of things that, for sure, a man, in the day, with the calibre of athleticism and medicine and being black and everything, he really did shine, and does still shine, as a person that offers a tremendous legacy for a Canadian. Period.

Given the climate of the day, your father must’ve endured a great deal of prejudice when he was attending school in the U.S. and in Canada. How did he deal with it?
Here’s my theory on it: When the Edwards were in Guyana, they were from a well-to-do family … They [grew] up in a predominantly black area and [were] well educated in Guyana and [never experienced] being the oppressed [before] coming up to Canada and the States. [As such], the story is that they never took no for an answer. And because of their background and their education, and their ability to be able to talk to people in charge, whenever a ‘no’ answer [was given to them] — ‘no, you can’t live here,’ ‘no, you can’t go to this school’ — somehow they would always get into the schools and live in the neighbourhoods they wanted to live in … I believe it was the way they were able to communicate on a level of being well educated and well versed in the English language.

So he managed to deflect the racist vitriol that was coming his way through the strength of his education and command of language alone? Was there anything else at play?
When I look at his achievements, it wasn’t only on that professional level but it was on a humanitarian level that he was able to touch people in a real way. And I believe that’s just how people perceived him.

There’s a story of him being refused entry into a hotel after the ’36 Olympics … He had received his fifth medal for Canada in the Olympics and [after being refused a room] he was in the basement in the washroom of the hotel, just sitting on a suitcase. One of his teammates came down and said, “What are you doing here Phil?” And he goes, “Well they won’t let me stay at the hotel.” … His reaction wasn’t to create a fuss or even tell anybody, not even his teammates, what the situation was. It was one of his teammates that found him and just went, “My God!” And the story goes, “Well, if this hotel isn’t good enough for Phil, it’s not good enough for us.”

So, just addressing who he was as a person, that story is not uncharacteristic of his personality: To not make a fuss and just sit there, and I’m sure he would’ve sat there all night and just not said a word, because that’s just what the atmosphere was in that day. I just think it says a lot about his character.

The 1936 Games in Berlin were famous for Jesse Owens dominating in front of Hitler and the Nazis, but your father, another black man, won a bronze in the 800-metre event. Did he and Owens have a relationship?
They were close. In fact, Jesse came to visit my dad in Montreal. They knew each other. There definitely was a tight circle of people. They were competitors, but they knew they were the so-called underdogs, especially in that atmosphere. So they were respectful of each other, they knew each other, they were in competition but you know you’re part of that same group of people that were being discriminated against. And you stick together, not necessarily socially — everybody stuck to their teams — but they certainly had mutual respect.

Your father is in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, a hall that was established in 1955, but he wasn’t inducted until 1997, why is that?
I did a lot of legwork to get my father into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which was really long overdue. And it was actually a friend of my dad’s who was also on the McGill team and was in the Olympics in the day. It was [former Canadian Olympic Association president] Harold Wright. Harold Wright is who I eventually reached out to ask why my dad wasn’t in the sports hall of fame and he was going, “Yes, it’s ridiculous.” He really pushed, with all of his connections.

What influence do you think your father has had on black Canadian athletes that have come after him and will continue to come up?
In the time, there weren’t that many [black athletes] and to succeed the way he did, he [is] definitely a role model — and without any coaching. As Harold Wright said, “He was always the frontrunner. If he was going to be beaten, they would have to catch up to him.” … He is an inspiration for, I think, any black athlete in Canada … I mean, his medal record was not equaled or beaten for 64 years in this country — that alone to me says how great he was.

So, yes, he is an inspiration. He was an incredibly beautiful runner. He was a runner of grace, and he was most definitely and should most definitely be remembered as a man who was graceful, strong, powerful and yet humble. They would always refer to him as a gentleman and gentle man, because of the qualities of his personality and his approach to life, in general. He definitely needs to be held up as a true Canadian champion for his athleticism and as an example for any black athlete [or] any athlete that’s had to overcome racial barriers in this country.

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