Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Siblings found a home in sports, made history in face of racism


By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 13, 2008


Valerie Jerome, 64 now, runs only three times a week, choosing paths through a park near her home, the soft trails easier on knees on which she has pounded so many kilometres, 100 metres at a time.

In 1960, she ran so fast she earned a spot on the Canadian track team at the Olympics that year. The Games were held in Rome, where statues and buildings still proclaimed the glories of the fascist regime overthrown in a war that had ended only 15 years earlier.

Aged just 16, too young to remember wartime, the sprinter from North Vancouver took in the sights with goggle-eyed wonder. Her strongest memories include searing temperatures and the scratchy woollen blazers of the official Canadian uniform. The release of pigeons overhead during the opening ceremonies did not make standing under the blazing Roman sun a more pleasant experience.

She remembers gaining pounds by eating too much at the athletes' cafeteria, where she breakfasted across the table from a handsome boxer named Cassius Clay, who would claim a gold medal on his way to becoming world heavyweight champion as Muhammad Ali.

So far from home, she found comfort in the presence of her older brother, Harry. They were the children of a railway porter and the grandchildren of Army Howard, a champion sprinter from Winnipeg who competed at the 1912 Olympics.

Harry Jerome, 19, shared the world record for the 100-metre dash, racing the distance in 10 seconds flat to qualify for Rome. He was a gold-medal hopeful in a Canadian contingent with few of them.

What happened to him in Rome continues to haunt his friends and family.

Today, he is remembered, if it all, as a fine sprinter. Not so long ago, his name generated tremendous passions, some unfair, some ugly.

“He was decent, honest, innocent,” said a sister to whom responsibility for his memory has fallen.

He was born in 1940 in Prince Albert, Sask. The Battle of Britain was being waged, so the boy was given Winston as a middle name in honour of an unflagging prime minister. Three years later, Valerie was born in St. Boniface, Man.

The family followed the railway to the coast, where they found a modest home across the street from Ridgeway Elementary in North Vancouver.

On their first day at school, classmates gathered in the schoolyard to throw stones at the newcomers, whose apparent transgression was to have been born with black skin.

The Jeromes eventually found a home in sports. Harry was a terrific baseball pitcher who won his first press clippings by throwing neighbourhood no-hitters. He drove rival pitchers to distraction at the plate by bunting before speeding to first base. Track became a full-time pursuit only when he was in Grade 11, a late start for a world-class athlete.

The Jerome siblings gained press notice at the Pan American Games in Chicago in 1959, where Valerie befriended Wilma Rudolph, the American sprinter who had overcome polio and scarlet fever and had walked only with leg braces until age 11.

A year later, Harry shared the title of the world's fastest man with Armin Hary of Germany.

The Olympic foot race between these Mercurys was much anticipated.

It was not to be.

In a qualifying heat, Mr. Jerome stumbled awkwardly as he pulled a muscle.

The Globe ran a photograph showing the stumble.

The rival Toronto Star and other newspapers were less sympathetic. The Star's front-page banner headline read: Our Runner's Loss Brings Secret Rejoicing. Other headlines read like cruel poetry: Egotist Jerome Needed Defeat, and There Were Few Tears For Jerome. One critic wrote that he had pulled a muscle – in his head.

These were either unkind comments of a disappointed press, or unfair aspersions barely hiding racial animosity.

Ms. Jerome knows how she feels about the matter.

“Harry's injury healed a lot more quickly than the hurt caused by the words,” she said.

He recovered to accept a scholarship at the University of Oregon. At one meet, teammates on the track team were so outraged by the way Mr. Jerome had been treated, they staged a memorable protest, turning their singlets inside out to read NOGERO. If some chose to see one Negro, the teammates would all be Nogeros.

Not just records were smashed in the 1960s.

At the 1962 Commonwealth Games, Mr. Jerome suffered a more grievous injury, as he severed a quadriceps muscle.

The Canadian track team shared a house in the athletes' village in Perth, Australia. Bruce Kidd, a middle-distance runner, slept in the bed beside the sprinter.

The injured runner invited his teammate to touch the injured muscle.

“I put my hand down the front of his leg,” Mr. Kidd said yesterday on the telephone from Toronto. “I could slip my fingers into a hole where his muscle had been. I've never ever felt anything like that.

“Yet the Canadian papers were filled with ‘Jerome quit again.' ”

The sprinter needed surgery to repair the muscle. Doctors said he would never run again.

He did not step on a track for a year.

But in 1964, Mr. Jerome qualified for the finals of the 100-metre dash at the Tokyo Olympics. He finished third, claiming the bronze medal in a legendary comeback.

“He was the most beautiful runner you ever saw,” Mr. Kidd said. “Some people run with enormous power and musculature and churning. Harry just flew. He was so smooth.” He retired with three world records to his credit, a Commonwealth Games gold, an Olympics bronze and other honours.

Mr. Jerome became an advocate for sports across Canada. He died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1982, aged 42. Ms. Jerome will never forget learning the terrible news in a telephone call.

She became a teacher, now retired. She continues to work as a track official and also gives inspirational speeches. Every February, during Black History Month, she visits her old elementary school to tell the pupils about stones being thrown at her and her brother. Some students, she reminds them, were brave enough to be her friend.

The war seemed distant to her in Rome, as 15 years had passed.

Her brother has been gone 26 years.

“To the kids today, Harry is ancient history,” she said.

There's a Harry Jerome Rec Centre on the site of his old high-school gymnasium. A volleyball centre in Burnaby is named for him, as is an annual track meet in the suburban city. A track complex in his Saskatchewan birthplace also memorializes the great sprinter. Awards and scholarship funds carry his name.

In Vancouver, Mr. Jerome is immortalized by a bronze likeness in Stanley Park.

His sister visits the statue every chance she gets.

Mr. Kidd makes a pilgrimage to the site whenever he visits the city.

For a man who moved so fast, Harry Jerome is captured in a frozen instant, forever breasting an imaginary finish line.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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