Nearly 60 years ago at a track meet in Saskatoon, Harry Jerome became the fastest man on Earth.
His 100-metre world record on July 15, 1960, is one of the greatest performances in Canadian sports history, but few people care about Jerome or the virulent racism he overcame, Olympic sprint champion Donovan Bailey said.
Bailey and others hope the Black Lives Matter movement will change North American society, but also prompt a greater appreciation for Jerome and other Black Canadians.
“We are at a place where everyone is listening. At least we’re all becoming aware of what systemic racism looks like,” Bailey said.
“There was no one faster on the planet than Harry. He should be celebrated far more than he is. I hope we get to a place where people are judged by what they do as opposed to what they look like.”
On a warm, calm July evening in 1960, nearly 3,000 spectators waited quietly for the start of the men’s 100-metre final at the Canadian Olympic trials in Saskatoon’s old Griffiths Stadium.
Jerome, born in Prince Albert, Sask., and raised in Winnipeg and Vancouver, was the favourite. But no one could have predicted what came next, said former Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter Ned Powers, who was stationed near the finish line.
The gun sounded and the 19-year-old Jerome was clearly first out of the starting blocks.
“Harry got out of there and it was just ‘Wow!” But we weren’t even thinking of anything like a world record,” Powers said in an interview this week.
In a CBC archival video, Jerome is seen kicking up cinders behind him as he builds an unheard of 15-metre lead. He never looks back, and leans his chest forward as he crosses the finish line.
The three officials checked their watches. Jerome had tied the world record of 10 seconds flat, set just weeks earlier by Germany’s Armin Hary.
Powers went to the meet director and asked, “Is somebody pulling our leg here? Did this really happen?”
The time was confirmed. Powers’s story ran in papers around the world.
Jerome triumphed, but a story from earlier that day hints at the treatment faced by Black athletes like Jerome. Powers had heard some people grumbling about Jerome because he declined to march in the athletes’ parade just before his race.
It’s now standard for athletes to rest and focus in the hours before competition, but Jerome was seen by some as ungrateful, Powers said. He was questioned about it by organizers just before his race began.
“Harry said, ‘I’ve got more important things to do.’ And as it turned out, three minutes later, he goes out and sets the world record,” Powers said.
According to other reports, Jerome actually ran under 10 seconds, but officials rounded up because they doubted people would believe their stopwatch readings of 9.9.
Pelted with rocks by students
Few knew the obstacles Jerome had faced to become the greatest sprinter in history. His family moved around Western Canada, as his father worked as a railway porter.
When they took the initial steps to buy a home in North Vancouver, residents signed a petition against them, said family friend Norma Charles.
Charles, who wrote the children’s book The Life of Harry Jerome, World’s Fastest Man, said the Jerome family was forced to settle in another part of North Vancouver. That fall, young Harry and his two sisters were pelted with rocks by white students as they approached the school. They ran home.
When their father returned from work a few days later, he took them back and ensured they were not assaulted, Charles said.
“All of this is because of what they looked like,” she said.
Charles said Jerome was reluctant to share these personal stories, but was a fierce advocate for what he thought was right.
Jerome went on to win medals at the Olympics, Pan Am Games and other global events. He would set multiple world records.
But along the way, he pulled out of two major races with severe injuries. Some questioned his toughness or patriotism.
“Jerome Denies He’s a Quitter,” read the Canadian Press headline following a race just two months after his Saskatoon world record.
A Toronto Telegram writer said Jerome’s “sheer bad manners has placed this young Negro down at the bottom as an athlete ambassador for Canada.”
Work for Black athletes ‘just to be given space to compete’
Bailey said he’s saddened by the way Jerome was treated, and says he and other Black athletes were also labelled aloof, arrogant and ungrateful. Many white athletes acting the same way would be called “confident” or “assertive,” he said.
In an interview on the eve of his historic 1996 race in Atlanta — which would make him the first man in history to hold the titles of Olympic champion, world champion and world record holder — Bailey said racism was still a problem in Canada, not just in the U.S.
He was summoned to the room of a Canadian Olympic official and berated for making political comments that were “startling and unfounded.”
Bailey said he lost a lot of sponsorship money because he refused to be silent. He said Jerome and other Black athletes were passed over in many ways no one will ever know.
These experiences are tragically common for Black athletes, said Janelle Joseph, a University of Toronto assistant professor and director of the Indigeneity, Diaspora, Equity, and Anti-racism in Sport (IDEAS) Lab.
“They’ve worked so hard just to be given space to compete,” Joseph said.
“Their stories are not celebrated because they’re not seen as the quintessential Canadian. That’s the racist stereotype.”
While it has sparked outrage and protests around the world, Joseph said she thinks some good can come out of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests and rallies.
Aside from the growing calls for police and societal reforms, Joseph agrees with Bailey that minds are opening to the injustices of the past.
“It feels like some white people are becoming more receptive, and realizing the way their privileged eyes are seeing things are not the way others do,” she said.
Remarkable life post-track
Bailey, Charles and others note Jerome’s life after track was also notable.
He worked for the federal government to improve the lives of athletes. He lobbied for university athletic scholarships and was better coaching and medical care for athletes representing Canada. Those are now standard across the country.
He returned to Vancouver to teach, and spoke about the need to encourage low-income and visible minority youth in sports.
He died in 1982, at age 42, of a brain aneurysm while driving in Vancouver.
There’s a statue of him in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and a plaque outside the Saskatoon stadium where he set his first world record. The track in Prince Albert, Sask., is also named after him, as is the Harry Jerome Classic, a prestigious track meet held every year in B.C.
Regina world masters champion sprinter Carol Lafayette-Boyd said those are important reminders. But she said it’s vital to acknowledge Jerome and his experiences, not just the statistics.
When Jerome was breaking records around the world, Lafayette-Boyd was the only visibly Black high school student in Regina.
She now works with the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum. She said schools need to teach students about Jerome.
“I don’t think we’ve heard enough about Harry. We all have a responsibility to be educated,” Lafayette-Boyd said.
“I’ve always said, ‘Black is beautiful.'”