The West Vancouver Place for Sport is pleased to announce that the running track, a key feature of this planned new facility, will be named in honour of Harry Jerome, British Columbia’s male athlete of the 20th Century and recipient of the Order of Canada. Harry grew up on the North Shore in the 1950s, training and competing for North Van High on the original cinder track at the West Vancouver Place for Sport. It was here, in 1959, that he broke numerous sprint records at the annual Howe Sound Track Meet. Harry’s remarkable success on the track was a front-page story at the time, and many longtime North Shore residents recall with pride his status as a local sports hero. “Our Harry Ties Mark” was the headline in the North Shore Citizen that celebrated the day only weeks later when he equaled a sprint record held for more than 31 years by Olympic gold medalist Percy Williams. By 1960, and still a teenager, he was considered one of the world’s fastest men.
Looking back, those who rejoiced at Harry’s athletic achievements had little sense of the deep racial injustice that he, his sister Valerie, and their family members had experienced since their arrival from Winnipeg in 1951. The family’s initial steps to buy a home in North Vancouver prompted many residents to sign a petition designed to block their purchase. Race-related policies and covenants preventing the sale of homes to “persons of the African or Asiatic race” were both legal and common at the time. Though this petition failed, the children’s first school experience at nearby Ridgeway Elementary left them traumatized.
We had no idea that outright war would be pitched to keep us from the classrooms. Harry, Carolyn, and I and our youngest sibling Barton, who was to start grade one that day, had not yet set foot on the grounds when we turned and fled back across 8th Street with stones, pebbles and rocks stinging and thumping our legs, our backs, and our heads. That memory has never left me. Valerie Jerome. Keynote Address, Black History Month. Vancouver Historical Society, February, 2020
Sadly, racism and bullying followed the children through much of their school careers. Valerie, in that same address, describes racism as:
“A constantly erosive evil. You might think that the old saying sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me is true. But I assure you that you could not be more wrong. Going back to the racism that we as a family endured, and up to the present . . . it hurt and deeply damaged members of our family. Individually and as a family we were fractured and scarred.”
Harry, and Valerie, herself an Olympian, found acceptance, safety and joy through track and field. In 1958 they were invited to join a new track club, the Optimist Striders, which became for them “a fabulous oasis of peace, calm, and of family. Here we were judged by the stopwatch and the measuring tape, not by the colour of our skin. This was our real home, where we were elevated and warmed from within by the camaraderie, love and respect of our coach and teammates.”
After graduating from North Van High, Harry accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he completed both his undergraduate and Masters degrees. Throughout the 1960s he was regarded as one of the world’s great sprinters, holding seven world records and winning gold medals at the British Commonwealth Games and the Pan American Games.
But the real story of Harry Jerome is of a man who overcame the anguish of both injury and prejudice. A gold medal favourite at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he ruptured his hamstring muscle and was unable to finish, a national disappointment that unleashed unseemly and unjust media criticism across Canada. “Jerome’s sheer bad manners has placed this young Negro down at the bottom as an athlete for Canada” —Toronto Telegram
Unfairly labeled a quitter, Harry was determined to compete again at the highest level, and in the winter of 1962, now recovered from injury, he joined the Canadian team at the British Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, having just set a new world record. Adversity struck again in the final, however, when he suffered an injury so severe that doctors initially believed he might never walk again, let alone run competitively.
And once again the Canadian media, which seemed to relish in judging him harshly, led with headlines that chose to portray Harry as a quitter. “Jerome Folds Again” —Vancouver Sun
Plagued by negative press and maligned across the country, at age 22 it seemed that his promising athletic career was at an end. Fueled by a fierce determination to prove his detractors wrong, Harry underwent extensive surgery followed by months of rehabilitation that tested his personal motto, “Never Give Up”, in a way he could never have imagined. Less than a year later he was running again for the University of Oregon, prompting legendary coach Bill Bowerman to describe his recovery as “the greatest comeback in track and field history”.
This strength of character and willful perseverance was on full display a year later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, when Harry won a bronze medal in the 100 metre final and finished fourth in the 200 metre final, the only athlete to run both events.
It was this stunning demonstration of resilience, on the world’s biggest stage, that finally began to silence the critics who had for years questioned his patriotism, courage, and character.
At the time, longevity as a world-class sprinter was almost unheard of, and certainly not predicted for Harry by his doctors. Nevertheless, he went on to win gold medals at the 1966 British Commonwealth Games and at the 1967 Pan American Games. Harry retired from competition in 1968, but not before reaching the 100 metres final in Mexico City, the third Olympic Games in which he had represented Canada.
Why is it that some who face great adversity in life are able to display remarkable strength and courage? As a youth, Harry discovered his resilience on the running track, nurtured by a loving coach, and so he fully understood the power of sport to change lives. It is not surprising then, that he devoted the remainder of his life to providing sports opportunities for Canada’s youth. An inspiration and mentor for young Canadians, in 1969 he was invited by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to help create Canada’s new Ministry of Sport, and in doing so led sports demonstration teams to hundreds of schools across the country.
In 1975 Harry returned to British Columbia to create the Premier’s Sports Award Program, designed to encourage participation in sport, to assist teachers with coaching and instruction, and to inspire students to strive for their own athletic dreams.
Harry died suddenly at the age of 42, just weeks after the Premier’s Sports Awards Program had been officially launched. He would have been happy to know that this program reached thousands of British Columbian children who wore with pride their colourful awards. Harry had so desperately wanted other young people to enjoy the bounty of good fortune and happiness brought to him through sports.
The story of Harry Jerome is much more than a distinguished athletic career. His resilience in the face of deep racial injustice and devastating injuries is perhaps his greatest legacy. Having found safety and acceptance on the running track, Harry fully understood the power of sport to change lives.
Tragically, he died suddenly at the age of 42, but not before devoting the last decade of his life to building programs designed to inspire Canadians to achieve their own athletic dreams.
No student should look out at the track, and no citizen should walk around it, without knowing who Harry Jerome was and what his story can teach us about building a more civil society.
Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again