Famous Black Canadians: 1/10: Harry Jerome
If you walk along the seawall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, you’ll come to a bronze sculpture of Harry Jerome, one of Canada’s greatest track stars. Back in the 1960’s, this Canadian icon shattered several world records in sprinting. Although Jerome was a great runner, he is remembered today for more than just his athletic ability. Like Terry Fox, another beloved Canadian track athlete, he embodied the great Canadian virtue of perseverance in the face of adversity.
Henry “Harry” Jerome was born on September 30, 1940, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After living for a brief time in Winnipeg, Manitoba, his family moved to North Vancouver, BC, in 1951.
Harry and his sister Valerie were both shy and soft spoken. Initially, they were the only black students in their North Vancouver schools. That all changed when Paul Winn, a black student from Toronto, moved to North Van. Winn soon became fast friends with the Jerome siblings and, in time, convinced Harry and Valerie to join their school track teams with him.
Harry and Valerie quickly discovered that they were natural sprinters. This fact probably did not come as a complete surprise to them, as their maternal grandfather, John Armstrong “Army” Howard, had dominated the Canadian sprinting world from 1912 to 1915. In fact, Howard represented Canada in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, becoming Canada’s first black Olympic athlete. Little did Harry know that, like his grandfather, he, too, would go down in Canadian athletic history.
Vancouver Optimist Striders
Harry, Valerie, and Paul proved themselves to be excellent runners on their high school track teams. Soon, they were noticed by John Minichiello, the coach of the Vancouver Optimist Striders. At his invitation, all three black Canadians joined his track team in 1959.
Under Minichiello’s direction, Harry’s performance improved. In no time, his times rivaled those of Percy Williams, a Canadian sprinter who held the world record for the 100 metre dash. Back in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Williams had ran the 100 metre sprint in 10 seconds flat.
At the 1960 Olympic trails in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 19-year-old Harry Jerome ran the 100 metre dash in 9.9 seconds, beating Williams’ world record. The incredulous judges thought that the stopwatch operator had made a mistake, however, and rounded Harry’s time up to 10 seconds. Officially, Harry Jerome had tied the world record holder for the 100 metre dash.
Of course, Harry’s times at the Olympic trails in Saskatoon earned him a place in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. That summer, he and his sister Valerie, who had similarly earned herself a place on the Canadian women’s Olympic track team, traveled to Italy.
As fate would have it, Harry Jerome found himself stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the semi-finals of the 100 metre dash. As the minutes crawled by, the young Canadian realized, with a growing sense of dread, that he was going to be late for the event if he didn’t do something about his situation. Accordingly, he got out of the cab and jogged to the stadium. He arrived just in time.
Tragically, Harry Jerome was unable to show the world what he was made of that day. Shortly after leaving the blocks, he pulled his hamstring. Harry collapsed on the side of the track, unable to finish the race.
Following his failure, Canadian media outlets, particularly the Toronto Star, lambasted Harry Jerome as a quitter who was unable to compete under pressure. Journalists redoubled their efforts when Jerome brusquely refused to submit to their interviews, interpreting his soft-spoken dismissals as displays of quiet arrogance.
University of Oregon
After recovering from his injury, Harry Jerome attended the University of Oregon on an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) scholarship. As a member of the university track team, he shattered record after sprinting record. Some of his accomplishments included:
- May 20, 1961: Breaking the 100 yard dash world record in Carvallis, Oregon. Jerome clocked in at 9.3 seconds.
- May 28, 1962: Being a member of the University of Oregon 440 metre relay team which tied the world record of 40.0 seconds in Modesto, California.
- September 3, 1962: Beating his own 100 yard dash world record in Toronto, Ontario. Jerome completed the race in 9.2 seconds.
In 1962, Harry Jerome qualified for the 1962 British Empire Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia. As was the case in Rome, however, Jerome’s experience in Perth was overshadowed by misfortune. While running the 100 metre dash, he tore his left quad severely and, as in Rome, was unable to finish the race. He flew back to Portland for an experimental surgery. Doctors expected that Jerome would be crippled for life, telling him that he would certainly never run competitively again. It seemed that Jerome’s once-promising athletic career was at an end.
Harry Jerome, however, was no quitter. In spite of the scorn the Canadian press continued to heap on him in the aftermath of his injury, he was determined to return to the track. That summer, he and his new bride, Wendy, moved to North Vancouver, British Columbia. Wendy was a native of Edmonton, Alberta, whom he had met at the University of Oregon and who, at that time, was preparing for the birth of their first child. While the wounded athlete recovered from his injury, the City of North Vancouver took care of the couple’s rent and grocery bills.
When his cast finally came off, Harry Jerome, under the guidance of his former coach, John Minichiello, worked to build back his severely-atrophied leg muscles. Against all odds, the runner made an almost-full recovery. He returned to Portland, and, to the amazement of his detractors, started running again. That fall, he ran a 60 yard sprint in 6.0 seconds, tying the world record, and prompting his coach, Bill Bowerman, to suggest that he had made “the greatest comeback in track and field history.”
Incidentally, during his final year on the University of Oregon track team, Harry Jerome invested $1,000 into Blue Ribbon Sports, a burgeoning shoe company founded by his coach, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman, who started out making running shoe soles with his wife’s waffle iron, eventually transformed his small business into Nike Inc., the famous American multinational sportswear corporation. This made Jerome, along with 26 of his teammates who similarly invested, millionaires many times over.
Medals and Honours
Harry went on to compete and place in a number of international competitions. His accomplishments included:
- Being the first man in history to simultaneously hold the world record for both the 100 metre and 100 yard dash.
- Winning bronze for Canada at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo in the 100 metre dash.
- Securing bronze at the 1965 Summer Universiade in Budapest, Hungary.
- Winning gold at the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.
- Winning gold at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
- Representing Canada in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico.
Jerome eventually retired from the track in 1969 and secured a position as a physical education teacher at Templeton Secondary School in the east side of Vancouver. That same year, at the behest of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he helped form Canada’s new Ministry of Sport. In 1970, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada. The following year, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Harry Jerome passed away quite suddenly on December 7, 1982, due to complications resultant of an epileptic seizure. One of the last people to see him alive was his good friend Paul Winn, his old schoolmate and fellow athlete from North Vancouver, with whom he had lunch on the day of his death.
- Mighty Jerome, National Film Board, 2010