Through the 1960s, North Vancouver’s Harry Jerome was considered one of the fastest humans on the planet.
Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and raised in North Vancouver, Harry played baseball and football in high school, but it was his sheer speed on the track that immediately made him a household name in British Columbia.
On May 27th, 1959, Harry flashed down the cinders at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium running the 220 yards in a sizzling 21.9 seconds at the Vancouver & District Inter High track meet breaking Percy Williams’ Canadian high school record in the event that had stood for 31 years. The crowd of 19,000 were also thrilled by Harry in the 100 yards, which he won in 10.1 seconds, just one-tenth of a second off Williams mark set in 1927. Hall of Fame coach Lloyd Swindells predicted to the Vancouver Sun, “With proper training and the right coaching, Harry could become one of the greatest sprinters of our time.”
Swindells, of course, would be proven right but no one expected it to happen so soon. Later that same year Harry ran the 100 even faster clocking 9.5 seconds, the fastest time ever by a Canadian sprinter and only two-tenths of a second off the world record.
The following year at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium, Harry equaled the 100m world record of 10.0 seconds flat at the Canadian Olympic trials. Harry would share the world record with Germany’s Armin Hary, who later that year would win the Olympic gold medal in Rome in the 100m. It was just the first of six world records Harry would set or match during his career.
In 1961, Harry broke the world mark in the 100 yards, sprinting to the finish in 9.3 seconds. One year later, he lowered the world mark by a tenth to 9.2 seconds. Also in 1962, he set the world indoor record over 60 yards with a time of 6.0 seconds and helped the University of Oregon’s 4×110-yard relay team to a new world record of 40.0 seconds. In 1966, Harry again lowered the world 100-yard record, this time to 9.1 seconds, making him the oldest 100-yard world record holder in history at 25 years of age. Perhaps most remarkably Harry remains the only human in history to hold both the 100m and 100-yard world records simultaneously.
Harry attended the University of Oregon from 1961-64 and ran on their venerable track team under the legendary coach Bill Bowerman. He won NCAA championships in the 220-yards in 1962 and the 100m in 1964, while also helping the Ducks to two NCAA team championships.
Harry competed for Canada at three Olympic Games (1960 Rome, 1964 Tokyo, 1968 Mexico City) in the sprint events. His career-defining moment came at the 1964 Olympics where he sprinted to a bronze medal in the 100m in a time of 10.2 seconds. It was the culmination of one of the most improbable comebacks in Canadian sport history recovering from a severely ruptured thigh muscle suffered at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games that required surgery and rehab that kept him out of competition for the entire 1963 season. Doctors were uncertain whether he’d ever be able to run again, let alone compete at an international level. This bronze medal was also redemption against criticism of Harry as an athlete that either hinted at racist undertones or was explicitly racist in the way his character was questioned. It’s hard to argue with an Olympic medal in the most hotly-contested event of the Games, especially given the tough road Harry had run to get there.
Following the Olympics, Harry later won gold in the 100 yards at the 1966 British Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica in a Games-record time of 9.41 seconds. He also took gold in the 100m at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg in a time of 10.27 seconds, just edging out the American sprinter Willie Turner then considered the fastest man in the world. Harry retired from active competition following the 1968 Olympics after once again making the 100m final and finishing 7th overall in a time of 10.20 seconds.
In 2008, Harry was ranked as the 9th greatest BC athlete of all time by Vancouver Sun sportswriter Gary Kingston. Harry is memorialized today with a dramatic statue of him breasting the finish line in Stanley Park and Canada’s premier track and field meet, the annual Harry Jerome Track Classic held in Vancouver, is named in his honour. Also bearing his name are the Harry Jerome Sports Complex in North Vancouver and the Harry Jerome Sports Centre in Burnaby, as well as the weight room at the University of Oregon and the track in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Also noteworthy is the Harry Jerome Awards, a national awards dinner for Canada’s black community organized by the Black Business and Professionals Association. An Order of Canada recipient and inductee into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Harry Jerome was also named a Person of National Historical Significance in 2010.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
For a more in-depth look at Harry Jerome’s career, please see the February 2022 Curator’s Corner feature article here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/harry-jerome-willie-fleming-the-fastest-runs-in-the-west-black-history-month-feature/