An old friend – an American – has come to the defence of prized Canadian athlete Harry Jerome, who was ostracized by certain sections of the local media.
Prior to the 1960 Rome Olympics, sports writers had established Jerome – once the world’s fastest man – as the favourite to win the sprint gold medal. But when an injury in the final pre-race heat forced him to withdraw, many mainstream media practitioners branded him a quitter and loser.
John Carlos, who considers Jerome one of his mentors, said they were very wrong to do so.
“Don’t let anyone trick you into believing that Harry Jerome was a loser,” Carlos said in the keynote address at the 31st annual Harry Jerome Awards last Saturday night at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. “He was a fierce competitor and one of the greatest sprinters in the history of the sport.”
Sandwiched between equalling Percy Williams’ national high school record with a 10-second run in the 100-yard dash in March 1959 and his last official race in August 1969 when he defended his Canadian title, clocking 10.5 seconds over 100-metres, Jerome won gold medals in the 100-metre sprint at the 1966 Commonwealth and 1967 Pan American Games and set seven world records.
Jerome was one of eight participants in the first all-Black 100-metre final in Mexico City in 1968, the same Games that Carlos and American teammate Tommie Smith used as a platform to raise fists in black gloves on the medal stand after the 200-metre final as a show of solidarity with oppressed people worldwide.
The fallout was immediate and extreme. Kicked out of the Olympic Village and ridiculed in his own country as a traitor, Carlos was forced to beg, borrow and steal to provide for his family.
After retiring from the track, Jerome – a three-time Olympian and Order of Canada recipient – became an advocate for amateur athletes and minorities and established the parameters for the creation of the federal Ministry of Sport before succumbing to a brain aneurysm in December 1982.
“John Carlos was loud in the way he went about doings, but Harry Jerome was smart and wise enough to use a silencer,” said Carlos, the 1967 Winnipeg Pan American Games 200-metre gold medallist. “He moved and motivated people just as well.”
Carlos said Jerome should not be defined by the number of medals he won.
“No gold medal, heavyweight belt, Stanley Cup or any trophy can supersede who you are as a human being,” said Carlos. “Harry Jerome had more concerns than wanting to win a gold medal. That was not going to depict who he would be and how successful he was going to be in life.”
Artist Mark Stoddart, whose Homage series paintings depict the familiar stories of iconic Black athletes – Carlos included – who broke colour barriers and became symbols of American and Canadian culture, and Jerome’s daughter – Debbie Jerome-Smith – were instrumental in bringing Carlos to Toronto for the event.
“He was a friend of my dad, part of his era and they competed together,” said Jerome-Smith. “I am thrilled that he’s part of this year’s celebration.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that Jerome pushed himself to excel and has left a positive mark on society.
“He also challenged the cultural representations, speaking out against the way African-Canadians were portrayed on TV,” said Wynne. “He fought against wage discrimination and he was a champion of educational opportunities for young people. He knew he could use his position and his influence to make a positive impact on our country. The fact that we are all here tonight honouring his name is a test to his enduring success.”
Official Opposition leader, Thomas Mulcair and provincial Conservative Party head, Tim Hudak, also attended the gala honouring 16 of the best and brightest, including GM Canada Ltd. president and managing director, Kevin Williams, who was the recipient of the Trailblazer Award.
He’s the only African-American in the history of the world’s largest automotive company to head a $25 billion company.
“Receiving the Harry Jerome Award for accomplishment in my profession and in my life is something extremely exciting,” said Williams, the youngest of 12 children who grew up poor in a Maryland housing project and was the first in his family to secure a college degree. “It says that you have demonstrated a level of excellence that others are seeing in your work and in your efforts to participate in the community. That’s what makes me proud to know that it’s not going unnoticed and I am contributing back, not just to my family, but also to the entire community.”
This year’s youth award winners were University of Alberta biology student Monique Jarrett, who aspires to be a paediatrician; Toronto FC goalkeeper, Quillan Roberts and former Quebec Association of Young Parliament board member, Emilie Nicolas, who is a doctoral candidate in linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Other winners were Alabaster Wellness Clinic’s chief executive officer and cosmetologist, Dr. Nadine Wong; Royal Bank of Canada regional president, Jennifer Tory; spoken word artist, Anne-Marie Woods; Bay St. law firm owner, Tanya Walker; Grammy Award winner, Ray Williams; businessman, Vincent Lai; Dr. Roz’s Healing Place founder and executive director, Roz Roach; Barbados Ball Canada Aid assistant treasurer, Grant Morris; York University professor, Dr. Carl James; Black cosmetic industry pioneer, Kemeel Azan and media practitioner, Royson James, who assisted with the design and layout of the commemorative book for the inaugural Harry Jerome Awards to celebrate the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games record performances of a new breed of Caribbean-born athletes who have left an indelible mark on the sport in Canada.
In her welcoming remarks, Black Business & Professional Association (BBPA) president, Pauline Christian, said the organization – which administers the Harry Jerome Awards – is in the process of setting up a Montreal chapter and launching a capital campaign to purchase a building.