A HERO REMEMBERED

02.29.2012

Harry Jerome Statue - Stanley Park, Vancouver

Recently a movie was produced and released (2010) under the title “Mighty Jerome”.  As this is a running blog and we assume most of the readers are ‘seasoned’, it should come as no surprise that Jerome is Harry Jerome, one of Canada’s greatest sprint athletes.  On Monday, February 27 I was finally able to have my first viewing, although I had seen some clips from the film some time ago.  Firstly, I want to thank those responsible for making this wonderful film.  It tells the story of a real man, not a myth.

Percy Williams

Percy Williams - Olympic Champion

I have held Harry Jerome as a personal hero for most of my life.  I was just a kid (maybe 15 or 16) when I met Harry, but we both belonged to the same track club, the Vancouver Optimist Striders, and as strange as it might sound, shared the same coach – John Minichiello. I was there as Harry began to blossom from local phenom to international athlete (first indications coming at the then huge Vancouver High School Track Meet where he broke one of the famed Percy Williams records and but for the slip of a foot [cinder track in those days] at the start of the 100 yard dash, would probably have bettered both).  I was there to see the work ethic.  There to know the Harry that the media never knew or understood. There to see the difference between Harry Jerome and Harry Jerome the sprinter.  Nobody does what Harry did without focus and intensity.  When not wearing his ‘game face’ he was a quiet personable guy.  When the starter’s orders were imminent Harry became a tiger, a fairly fierce and nasty tiger.  Even in minor events, Harry was a serious competitor.

The latter statement reminds me of the only time I ever raced him (in a manner of speaking).  It was a Highland Games meet in Nanaimo.  There were so few athletes there that they put all the 100 yard sprinters into one race, so even though I was maybe four years his junior I found myself by the luck of the lane draw pounding my starting blocks into the cinders in the lane just to Harry’s left.  I had always been a big kid, so although skinny as a rake, I probably wasn’t much shorter, but I felt like I was about six years old.  I like to tell people that Harry and I were dead even at that race.  Dead even, right until the starter fired his gun.  After that, all I saw was flashing spikes and the arse of his shorts disappearing down the track.  OK.  No big deal that almost world class sprinter dusts skinny teen, but Harry never lined up on a start line just for the fun of it.  For him it was always serious.  The truth is that we were dead even twice on that sunny afternoon in Nanaimo, because JUST as the gun fired a pipe band (it was a Highland Games) began marching across the track at about 60 yards.  This is the part where the intensity comes in.  I thought as I stood up and stopped, a stride or two out of my blocks, on the second ‘false start’ gun, that I was about to witness the cruel murder of a set of pipes.  Harry, already several strides out when the second report from the starter’s gun was heard, kept running at almost full speed until he was within a few yards of the pipe section of this band.  I thought I was about to see those high flashing steel spikes slash through the tartan ‘bag’ of at least one of those skirling instruments.  But no, as I suppose he knew he would, Harry pulled up just short.  I am sure he just wanted them to know there was other business on the field that day. 

King Edward Track (1962) - Intrepid Author at the Centre Rear.

We formed up again.  I’m sure the starter took a couple of extra looks to be sure there were no more bands in the immediate vicinity.  Once again, Harry and I were dead even.  I determined that maybe we could stay dead even for at least one stride this time.  But not even that was possible, for one of the things that makes great sprinters great is the start.  By the time I reacted to the sharp crack of the gun, Harry was already out of the blocks and again my personal view from low down over the track, was his spikes flashing in the sun and the back of his shorts disappearing down the track.  It was a crazy circumstance that I ever got to be in that position but I cherish it as a fantastic experience to this day. 

At the film showing one of his closest friends, Paul Winn, was present to talk to the audience.  Paul was a fixture at the training sessions and track meets and although he didn’t remember me (I had no expectation that he would) he certainly recalled and related to my stories.  When I mentioned this Nanaimo Highland Games his face lit up and he commented (he was a serious and pretty darn good long and triple jumper) that he had to start in the tall grass to get his run-up to the jumping pit.  Sorry Nanaimo, that was a long time ago on a small track facility where we all went just for the joy of the competition.  We will just say it was a rustic setting.

The Mighty Jerome also reminded me of another track on which we both competed, or maybe I should say venue.  That would be Hayward Field in Eugene.  Many of Harry’s best early achievements including world record times were done there.  Both in 2010 and 2011 I was able to savour the finish of the Eugene Marathon down the 100m straight, “Running in the Footsteps of Legends”.  Yes, yes, my turn on Hayward Field was a few years behind Harry Jerome, but he was

Finish of Eugene Marathon

definitely one of the legends in whose footsteps I was running.  Hayward Field today is a modern composition track, but the scenes from the movie show that most of the tracks on which Harry Jerome ran, including Hayward Field were cinder tracks, subject to environmental conditions and all the more difficult when it came to top performance.

I knew a lot about Harry Jerome because I followed his career after those early days, but the movie told things I never knew.  It also reminded me of things that people have no concept of these days.  Top athletes tend to do reasonably well with sponsorship deals and the really top ones get endorsement deals, appearance fees and prize money well worth winning.  Not in those days of track and field.  To compete on the world stage you had to maintain amateur status.  BOY did they mean that.  Money in almost any form other than as a scholarship, could not cross your hand.  The AAU was brutal about it.  By my reckoning it was most of a decade after Harry did his best running that the stringent rules were challenged and began to break down.  Today, I know a man who was an Olympic race walker in his day.  He tells of being challenged for accepting expenses for travelling to a particular location to speak/coach a little on the subject of race walking.  No profit in it for him – just expenses.  It was so funny to hear some of the questions regarding ‘why didn’t Harry do this or that’ when times got hard.  The questions were sincere but the questioners had no idea of how it was in Harry’s time.  I never had a problem myself.  Nobody ever wanted to pay me to do anything or go anywhere!  I still had my AAU card though.  Until last night I had totally forgotten about it.

The movie is so worth seeing that I have no intention of trying to review or summarize it.  Rather, I am just using it to open my own subjects of discussion.  For me, as much as it had a great nostalgia value, it was at times a celebration of glory and greatness but also sad, frustrating and even made me angry at times.  I suppose you would think that is grounds for high praise.  I think so.

It was both sad and angering to see how Harry was treated as a black man.  At least some of the mistreatment he received at the hands of the media was partially based in racism.  In Canada???  Yes, in Canada.  One of the main reasons we didn’t see much of it when the lid was coming off in the US is that Canada just didn’t have that many people of colour in those days.  Around 1970-71 I got a personal taste of it.  I was studying for my Masters at the University of Guelph and had met a black Jamaican student, also doing his Masters, who became a good friend (who I last spoke with while in Jamaica in December 2011).  Between degrees I had worked in the R&D department of General Foods in Cobourg, ON, just east of Toronto.  I can’t even remember why, but because of something in my friend’s thesis work I arranged to take him to visit the GF Research Lab.  When we were done, I decided to fill up the gas tank before hitting the highway.  We pulled into a gas station and I waited for the attendant (no self-serve in those days).  Nothing.  I looked around to be sure the station was open.  As far as I could see, it was.  Because of where the gas cap was, I had pulled in with my friend sitting closest to the building.  By this time I had opened my door and stood up looking toward the building.  It was then that I saw the attendant staring out.  I looked straight at him for several seconds, and then he just turned away and went back to where I couldn’t see him.  Suddenly, I was 100% certain of what had just happened.  I was sick at my stomach and angry as hell.  Not in my Canada!  Sadly, my friend was not near as surprised as I had been.

The other upsetting part of the movie was that with my little personal knowledge of Harry I felt I understood why he got a bad rap as being aloof and uncooperative.  In those days, the press had virtually unlimited access to the track.  Whether they were just dumb or felt entitled, many couldn’t seem to understand how a world level athlete like Harry might need private time and space to get his head into the race he was about to run, or to come down from the one he had just finished.  Some seemed genuinely surprised that he would push them away in those critical moments.  As a result, many seemed to want to jump on his apparent failings, calling him ‘quitter’ at every opportunity.  Although he had a couple of spectacular failures in the most unfortunate times and places, they were injury related and in context it is not hard to see that it was his very competitive spirit that pushed him to where he put so much into his race that sometimes he would injure himself, once so catastrophically that most thought he would never run again, perhaps never even walk right.  The movie does bring out how it was his spirit that made him determined to come back to achieve some of his most recognized triumphs in terms of world records and medal finishes.

Finally, the sadness of knowing how young he was when he suddenly died was something of which the movie simply reminded me.  He was just 42.  At this very moment, he has been gone almost as long as he lived.

All of that said, I personally still hold Harry as one of my great heroes because he did what he did while also being very much an ordinary human being.  Most of us don’t have the enormous privilege of knowing such people, to the point of being able to see past the public image.  I think it would be wonderful if everyone did, because I believe if it were so then we might be less prone to ‘eat our own children’.  What do I mean?  Well, in Harry’s case I knew enough of him that ‘quit’ was no part of him. I also knew enough to know that he could only walk on water in winter when it was frozen.  It is even worse today because with the media tendency to create instant heroes and an apparent glee in knocking them off their pedestals as soon as possible, we have even less chance of putting things in context.  And, maybe the whole crazy “Amateur” thing, and it was crazy as practiced, wasn’t totally wrong when you see what happens to wet behind the ears kids given way too much money and way too much celebrity too fast.

I highly recommend that anyone who wants to know a true sporting icon, take a look at Harry Jerome. One of the best ways to do that is to see Mighty Jerome just as soon as you can.

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