Running in the footsteps of Harry Jerome
Donovan Bailey sees the link between a Canadian sprint hero of the 1960s and Andre De Grasse, the country's great hope for Rio
By DAVID EBNER
Friday, June 17, 2016 Print Edition, Page S3
VANCOUVER -- Firing from the starting block in the 100-metre dash, Harry Jerome would chant to himself: faster, looser, faster, looser. He did not grit his teeth, or ball his hands into fists. His friends remember how loose he ran.
Jerome's cheeks would bounce up and down as he flew down the track.
Jerome was among the fastest men in the world, a half-century ago. At the age of 19, in 1960, the North Vancouver sprinter ran 10 seconds in the 100 metres. The time equalled the world record set three weeks earlier by Armin Hary of West Germany. It stood for eight years.
Jerome set several more world records in a career that spanned a decade, unheard of in his era. He overcame racism and severe injury to become one of Canada's great athletes. After retirement, he promoted sport among youth.
He died at 42 of a brain aneurysm in 1982. His legacy faded.
On Friday, a spotlight will briefly shine on Jerome's life, as the past and future of Canadian sprinting intersect in the Vancouver suburbs at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic.
The annual meet generally attracts little attention, but this year, with the Rio de Janeiro Olympics two months away, some top talent will compete, led by Andre De Grasse, the 21-yearold sprint phenom.
The 100 metres is a marquee event at any Olympics - but Canadian sprinters rarely rank among the world's best. Stars emerge only every few decades.
It's been 20 years since Donovan Bailey's gold medal in Atlanta, Canada's pinnacle in the 100 metres.
De Grasse could be Canada's biggest name in Rio, a medal contender after his bronze at the world championships last summer. And De Grasse's rapid ascent up the sprinting ladder has not gone unnoticed by those who knew Harry Jerome best.
"Harry would be thrilled to see De Grasse," said Valerie Jerome, Harry's sister. "Harry thought Canadians never believed enough in who they were. They called Harry cocky. He knew he was good."
No question sprinting was in Jerome's blood. His grandfather, John Howard, was Canada's first black Olympian, in 1912, running the 100 metres in Stockholm.
When Harry was a boy, the Jerome family moved to North Vancouver from Winnipeg in 1951.
Racism was overt. Neighbours petitioned against the Jeromes moving in. Children at school threw rocks and hurled racial slurs at Harry and Valerie.
On the track, Jerome's breakout moment was the 10 seconds he ran at the Canadian trials ahead of the 1960 Rome Olympics. "It's a thing you just have to feel," Jerome said afterward. "Sometimes it feels good and sometimes it doesn't." In Rome, in the semi-finals, Jerome tore a hamstring tendon and didn't finish. He collapsed at the side of the track and wept.
Canadian media branded him a quitter. They didn't like his aloof nature. "You couldn't talk to him when he was in the zone getting ready," close friend Paul Winn said. Bruce Kidd, a friend and a top middle-distance runner in the era, remembers Jerome's reputation.
"He was savaged by some of the media," Kidd said. "I had my bad days, too, but I was never savaged liked Harry. I was white and middle-class and from Toronto. He was black and working-class from Vancouver."
In late 1962, Jerome hit a bottom. At the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, he suffered a catastrophic injury. The tendon that connected his quadriceps to his left knee completely ruptured. It should have ended his career. He wasn't expected to walk without a limp. But a landmark operation - the scar was some 30 centimetres long - and Jerome's deep resolve led to a comeback described at the time as the greatest in track history.
At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Jerome won bronze in the 100 metres - a medal that rehabilitated his maligned public reputation. He won golds at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and 1967
Pan American Games. In 1968, at the Mexico City Olympics, he reached the 100-metre final and finished seventh.
"I respect people who do it over time at very high levels," said track coach Dan Pfaff, who helped guide Bailey to gold.
"Jerome was in a class of his own in that era."
After Jerome died, there was a push for recognition. A statue stands in Vancouver's Stanley Park. There is the Vancouver track meet and, in Toronto, the annual Harry Jerome Awards, which celebrate achievement in the black community. A biography, Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome, was put out by a small publisher in 2007 and a National Film Board documentary titled Mighty Jerome followed thereafter.
Yet his story is more past than present.
"So many people haven't even heard of him," said Valerie Jerome, who was also a 1960 Olympic sprinter.
Bailey, meanwhile, sees a link through the decades - how Jerome, himself, and De Grasse all quickly shot to global prominence from relative inexperience.
What is different, Bailey said, are the trials Jerome faced. He described Jerome as Canada's Jesse Owens.
"Harry jumped on the scene. I jumped on the scene. Now Andre's jumped on the scene," Bailey said. "Great parallel."
Canadian track star Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., celebrates after capturing gold in the men's 100-metre sprint final at the Pan American Games in Toronto last summer.
FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL