Canadian icon Harry Jerome’s legacy extends well beyond the track

A seven-time world record holder, Harry Jerome blazed a trail for future Canadian sprinting sensations like Donovan Bailey and Andre De Grasse. #BlackHistoryMonth

WALK EAST ALONG VANCOUVER’S Stanley Park sea wall, winding left and then right, swinging around the southeastern bend of the park’s outer limits, and you’ll come to the statue of Harry Jerome.

He’s leaning forward mid-sprint, stretching every fibre of his metallic skin, black fading into green. It’s an apt depiction given all Jerome accomplished during his career as one of Canada’s all-time track and field greats, an apt position in which he should be frozen — forever pushing forward.

A small plaque adorns the front face of the grey stone block from which Jerome’s statue leaps. “British Columbia’s Athlete of the Century,” it reads, followed appropriately by Jerome’s world-record sprint times, and the year he was granted the Order of Canada.

But while the most potent moments of Jerome’s athletics career can be summarized in a collection of numbers etched in metal, the impact of the life he led cannot be corralled so easily. To scrawl all the details of his legacy would require those letters to spread across the entirety of this rectangular stone block, then continue onto the park’s grassy floor and spill over the sea wall into the water.

Because while Jerome earned his best-known accolades on the track as the world’s fastest man, it was the work he did away from it — advocating for young athletes, for people of colour, for Canadians at large — that might’ve had the greatest impact on those who came after him. Both were products of the same aspect of Jerome’s character — a resilient spirit that permeated all he did, and simply refused to wilt.

Harry Jerome
Harry Jerome hits the tape to win the fourth heat of the men’s 100 meter dash quarterfinals at the Olympics in Rome, Aug 31, 1960. (AP Photo)

GROWING UP IN NORTH VANCOUVER, all Jerome wanted to do was compete. Not on a track, not with an official number pinned to his stomach — he just wanted to play, and it didn’t much matter what type of ball you brought to the game. “He loved to be outside,” says his younger sister Valerie Jerome, an Olympic sprinter and Pan-American Games medalist in her own right. “He loved doing sports. He didn’t enjoy hanging around in the house — we didn’t have a very happy household, and our dad was away as a porter, so Harry could always be found outside, throwing a football … throwing a baseball.” He bounced between soccer, hockey, football and baseball, excelling in every sport he picked up. “As a matter of fact,” Valerie says, “the first time he made the newspapers in greater Vancouver, it was because he pitched a no-hitter.”

In Grade 11, at North Vancouver High School, Jerome took his first spin on the track. It was classmate Paul Winn, then a recent transplant from Toronto with a background in track and field, who nudged Jerome in the direction of the oval. “When I came out (to North Vancouver), I held two Canadian records for my age group, so I was really into track and field at that time,” Winn says.

While Jerome didn’t yet share Winn’s love of the track at first, the two did team up for the high school baseball team. Those early days on the diamond together were, expectedly, nightmare fodder for their high-school opposition. “Harry was never a slow guy,” Winn says. “In baseball … he and I played outfield, and he was a fairly fast outfielder. I mean, if a ball got hit in our direction, we almost covered the whole field from left to right. He was fast.” And an accomplished pitcher, of course. And a pretty decent challenge on ice. “We also played hockey together, and I mean, he was good on skates. The guy was fast on ice skates.”

Winn eventually convinced the Jeromes — Valerie was in Grade 7 at the time — to pick up track and field more seriously, and both took to it early. So much so that it became the focal point of their time together, prompting daily commutes from North Vancouver to Vancouver’s Stanley Park to put in hours at the Brockton Oval. “Every day, we’d catch a bus, go across (the Lions Gate Bridge), train on that track, come back,” Winn says. “So you develop an interesting relationship, a friendship, because we were focused on track and field.”

It didn’t take long for the trio to get noticed, and soon they joined coach John Minichiello on a local track club dubbed the Optimist Striders. For the Jeromes, the draw was more than just the satisfaction of bursting past the finish line. “We found a lot of people there like ourselves, young people who were sort of looking for a community,” Valerie says. “Our track club… we were a very close and supportive group. It was terrific. It was a real family.”

It became clear to Winn early on that Jerome was destined for greatness. It wasn’t just the natural speed and athleticism on display in every sport he played, but the drive and will to harness those natural abilities into something exceptional. “It was like a philosophy of focusing on winning,” Winn says. “There were many times we used the expression, ‘I didn’t come here to finish second.’”

Winn felt that mantra realized against him when he and Jerome would race. Though primarily a jumper, Winn could still hold his own in a sprint. But taking on Jerome was simply something else. “If I raced against him over 100 yards, he was, like, strange, you know — we could be fairly close probably for the first 50 yards, and then it was like he had an overdrive hidden somewhere. You’re running stride for stride with somebody, and then suddenly it’s like you hit a wall and the other person kept going.”

Much of that fuel came not from anything that transpired during those seconds in which he zipped up a track, but from the weight of the discrimination he and his family faced growing up in a community with few who looked like him.

“You know, Harry was not one for confrontations or fights or arguments — what he would do is he would take his energy and lay it out on the track. And I could probably name 30 experiences where something fairly explosive had either just happened or he was avoiding it, and his answer to these things was ‘You motivate me,’” Valerie says. “He used the energy from all of that unhappiness and he just turned it into performances on the track. He was very, very motivated by what he had experienced — but he was motivated in such a positive way. It was amazing.”

For those who saw Jerome day in and day out, the desire was insatiable, the drive unquestionable. It was precisely because of this understanding of who he was that the defining moments of Jerome’s track career had such a devastating effect on his inner circle, with circumstances repeatedly conspiring to rob him of his moment. The early ’60s housed the bulk of that tumult — first during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and then in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Jerome headed into both events as a medal favourite after pre-tournament runs of success. Twice, he left the starting blocks hoping for a banner moment. Twice, injury wrestled those dreams from his grasp — a hamstring injury downing his Olympic hopes, a brutal quadricep injury torching his chances in Australia. And twice Jerome was peppered with accusations of crumbling under the pressure, with reporters back home labelling him a quitter unable to cope with the spotlight.

“It was heartbreaking,” Valerie says of the press coverage after the Commonwealth Games. “The biggest pain for us at the time that Harry had this horrific injury to his quadricep — which was totally ripped off the tendons to the knee — [was that] he was going through this hideous criticism of being a quitter.”

That lack of faith served only to set the stage for one of the greatest comebacks track and field has ever seen. Following an operation that sidelined Jerome for the entire 1963 season, he returned to the starting blocks for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Getting there at all after a year on the sidelines was a victory in itself. But Jerome had eyes on something more lasting. And he got it in the form of his first podium finish, his 10.2 seconds earning him a bronze medal in the 100-metre dash. His vindication continued over the next few years with a pair of gold-medal finishes (winning the 100-yard dash at the ’66 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, and the 100-metre dash at the ’67 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg) and a 9.1-second finish in the 100-yard dash in ’66 that tied the world record.

All those years of criticism turned to dust in the wake of inarguable dominance.

“He had a lot of burdens to carry,” Valerie says. “He carried them quietly inside, and then he used that explosion to make his performances so great.”

Harry Jerome
Jerome relaxes at the Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, in 1962. (AP Photo)

ANYONE WHO WAS SURPRISED that Jerome eventually traded the fleeting glory of sprinting for the slow marathon of social advocacy wasn’t paying attention to his story. Versatility was always the name of the game for him. And just as he’d found a way to make an impact on the mound, on the ice, or on the track, he found a way to use the platform gained from his athletic feats to try to bring about real change.

After his third and final Olympic appearance — 1968 in Mexico City — Jerome began working with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for Health and Welfare in Ottawa. “He got all these soccer clubs going, and girls’ soccer in particular,” Valerie says. “He got all kinds of people who were elected members of parliament to come out and be coaches.”

That was simply the beginning. Jerome used his voice to affect change in as many venues as he could. He spoke up about the need to provide more support for young athletes. He twice appeared in front of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to argue for more visible minorities on television. He lobbied department stores and school boards to include people of colour in advertisements. He simply refused to relent.

Winn was by his side for much of those efforts, and remembers the difficulty of the path forward. “We encountered discrimination and racism in the process, you know, and his family did, even before I arrived on the scene,” Winn says.

This wasn’t necessarily a new challenge for Jerome, though, says Valerie. “You know, the press in Vancouver — much, certainly not all of it — much of the press still always saw him as a black boy. He wasn’t a man without this necessary descriptor of what his skin looked like. So there were frustrations along the way.”

Not that he let those frustrations deter him.

“He really wanted other young people to experience what he had experienced, which was the opportunity to get the satisfaction of a good race, of seeing the world,” Valerie says. “He very deeply felt that we were very, very lucky. Track and field was a sport that did not require a lot of wealth. It also was … an individual sport. You could make it yourself. There was no prejudice — the stopwatch was what measured you, not a bunch of ignorant people. So because we gained so much, he really felt he wanted other people who didn’t have a lot to have the opportunities that he had. And that really meant so much to him.”

That desire to give back lasted all the way to Jerome’s final moments. In December 1982, he suffered a brain aneurysm that took his life. He was just 42 years old. Earlier that same day, he’d had lunch with his old friend Paul Winn. The topic of discussion — how to get more kids involved in fitness.

Jerome was the subject of a Google Doodle on Sept. 30, 2019, which would have marked his 79th birthday. The Doodle was created by Toronto artist Moya Garrison-Msingwana and inspired by the statue of Jerome at Hallelujah Point in Stanley Park.

JEROME’S IMPACT on the generations of Canadian athletes that followed him to the track exists as more than simply a time to target or a medal count to beat. His legacy has endured through the annual Harry Jerome International Track Classic, renamed in Jerome’s honour in 1984, and in the Harry Jerome Awards, annually paying tribute to members of Canada’s black community.

Hamlin Grange was the one who suggested naming the awards after Jerome. But even he had no idea the event would become as prestigious as it has. Back when the awards were created, the goal was simply to celebrate the black athletes who had thrived at the ’82 Commonwealth Games. Jerome was to be invited to give the keynote speech at a dinner paying tribute to the athletes, but he passed away before an invitation could ever be offered. So Grange and the Black Business and Professional Association changed course, instead honouring the returning athletes with an award in Jerome’s name. “We did it one year, and then we did it a second year, and before you know it, it became this signature event — not just within the black community but across all of Canada,” Grange says. “It recognizes not just athletic ability but community-building as well.”

There was no question in Grange’s mind that Jerome was deserving of the tribute, and that’s still the case today. “People may not talk about it, or even think about it … but a lot of things that he did, it forced Athletics Canada and the athletic institutions to treat athletes differently and to take them more seriously. So that’s part of the legacy,” Grange says. “I think Harry tried to do it in his own way, and in a very limited way, too — he didn’t have the platform that young athletes have today. There was no social media, right? There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram — but he was able to do so many things.”

The weight of his impact has been great. And the nature of it reflects the life he led — varied and unshakeable. “Certainly I think he has been key to a lot of young black people looking at his image and saying, ‘Oh yes, I’m part of the greatness of this country, because that man is the same colour as I am,’” Valerie says of her brother. “I’d like to think that we all look at ourselves a little bit better, and I think that’s what we want to do — we want to see ourselves as the greatness of our country. And he was part of the greatness. For people of colour, they get to see that — yes, this man was. So I can be, too.”

Walk east along that Stanley Park sea wall, along those winding turns, and he still is. Grange recalls taking that exact stroll a while back, seeing that leaping silhouette set against the city’s skyline.

“I remember taking my youngest daughter — she must have been nine, 10 years old. We went for a walk along the park there,” he says. “I heaved her up to climb up on top of the statue, and she sort of mirrored his pose. I still have that picture, you know. It’s a memory that’s drilled in my brain.

“It’s the kind of memory I think all young kids should just have, knowing what this man did, as a Canadian. What it meant to all of Canada, but also, more importantly, to the black community, in terms of success, achievement and overcoming some pretty huge obstacles — I think Harry Jerome is symbolic of that.”

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