- Mighty Jerome
A book inspired filmmaker Charles Officer. The title, Running Uphill: The Short Fast Life of Harry Jerome, is a metaphor for Jerome’s turbulent life and also refers to his 1960 world record (10s for 100m) at Saskatoon’s old Griffiths Stadium, on a cinder track one quarter-inch uphill at the finish.1 I was nine when I watched nineteen-year-old Jerome tie the German Armin Hary’s world record.2 Three years later a modest bronze plaque for Jerome was mounted on a boulder at the entrance to the stadium. That summer I joined a track club. Each time I walked past the plaque to a practice or a meet I would glance at it. It was my talisman. Later the boulder was moved to a new stadium 300 meters away. The track had a tartan surface. At some point the plaque mysteriously disappeared. It was missing for so long some doubted it had ever existed. In 2006, the same year as the book came out about Jerome, the plaque turned up during installation of artificial turf for the football field, under the dirt and natural grass behind the tartan straightaway, near the 100m start line.
This elegiac documentary about Harry Winston Jerome, Mighty Jerome, was released almost thirty years after he died from a brain aneurysm at age forty-two in his hometown, Vancouver. Why it took so long for somebody in Canada to make this film is, arguably, due to the polarizing figure Jerome was cast as in the larger Canadian society (unlike in the rarified culture of track and field where he was greatly admired). Sportswriters, particularly those from the East, who knew little about running fast and next to nothing about his story in the Western Canadian version of the African Diaspora, portrayed the shy Jerome as aloof or, worse yet for a Canadian, arrogant. As Harry’s best friend in high school, the extroverted outspoken Paul Winn (one of three African Canadians in their school, including Harry’s sister, Valerie), explains in the film, “The world wasn’t ready for Harry, and Harry wasn’t ready for the world.” In the summer of 1960 in Rome, at the first televised Olympics, after Harry pulled up lame in the semi-final and limped off the track he was harshly criticized by the Toronto sportswriters. In 1962, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Harry was injured again, seriously. Some sportswriters, having no clue his quadriceps injury could end the career of a less strong-willed person, labeled Jerome a choker, a head case who could not take the pressure, a quitter. Having lost his scholarship at the University of Oregon due to injury, he went home to heal. With the help of his long-time Vancouver coach John Minichiello, his Edmonton-born wife Wendy, friends, and family, and a medical team he began a grueling recovery regimen following [End Page 141] surgery. His Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman, called Jerome’s eventual return to competition the greatest comeback in track and field history. Jerome won a bronze medal in the 100m at the Tokyo Olympics and set more world records in a ten-year international career. His personal story is just as riveting.
Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the son of railway porter Harry Jerome, Sr. and Elsie Howard Jerome (who was the daughter of Army Howard, the African-Canadian sprinter who ran in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and his English wife Edith), Harry Jr., was the oldest of five children raised in Winnipeg and Vancouver. In the film Army is given scant attention. From the book I know he died in the 1930s, separated from Edith, forgotten as a public figure. The move from Winnipeg to Vancouver was difficult. The Jerome family was not welcome in the neighborhood of their choice. A petition was started. They had to move to another house. “Colonial business,” Elsie Jerome claims in the film. “Certain places they want to put people—all hush-hush in...