Percy Williams’ double victory in the 1928 Amsterdam Games, gold in the men’s 100 and 200-metre dashes, was more than a singular achievement in Canadian Olympic annals. It was, in a way, a great stride toward a stronger Canadian identity, a belief we could be world-beaters, not just also-ran cousins behind England and the United States.
That summer, a 5-foot-6, 126-pound stripling who was once advised to give up sports due to a heart condition had the country in thrall as he won the two sprints just two days apart. It was one of Canada’s first major international sporting triumphs. The image of Williams straining to breast the tape in the Olympic 200 final with a Maple Leaf on the torso of his singlet had such strong memory burn that it played a role in the design of Canada’s flag three decades later.
The details of Williams’ fleet-footed feats have faded from memory. Today, he’s a figure immortalized on a statue near B.C. Place in his native Vancouver that most people probably pass by without a second thought. Had he pulled off the 100-200 double four years later at the 1932 Games during the deepest despair of the Great Depression instead of during the apex of the Roaring ’20s, it might have taken on a Seabiscuit-like dimension. Pint-sized mama’s boy with a bad heart from the distant West Coast proves all the experts wrong by coming out of nowhere to win the Games’ glamour race, brightens bleak lives, strike up the music. If Williams had been American, that movie would be on cable every night.
Those elements were part of the Williams story, along with a remarkable coach named Bob Granger who put him on the path toward becoming an Olympic champion. In the mid-1920s, Granger learned by word of mouth of a Vancouver youth who could run the shorter 100-yard dash in close to 10 seconds, but was afflicted with a football injury and the after effects of a childhood case of rheumatic fever.
The two became impossibly tight during the lead-up to Amsterdam as Williams continually beat older sprinters from along the West Coast. Of course, in 1928, an athlete from B.C. just getting a chance to represent Canada was difficult. Granger actually had to take a job on the Canadian Pacific Railway just so he could accompany Williams to the Canadian track and field trials in Hamilton. After Williams won at the trials, running a 10.6-second 100 that was the equal of the world record, Granger predicted Williams would win the 100 in Amsterdam, but that comment had no traction outside of Canada.
Williams’ mother, Charlotte Williams, actually had to prevail on Vancouver businesspeople to chip in so Granger, the sprinter’s personal coach, could make the transatlantic voyage to Amsterdam. The 1928 Games, incidentally, were the true beginning of the modern Olympics. Women competed for the first time; less importantly, it was also the first to have an Olympic flame and the now familiar 16-day schedule.
No sooner had Williams arrived than he was connected to an international incident that included accusations of American favouritism. The U.S. track team was allowed to train on the Olympic track whereas other competitors were barred from using it. The Canadian Press even reported Williams was barred from taking a photo inside the stadium as a keepsake.
That ratcheted up tension before the 100 metres, but Williams took an early lead and never relinquished it. Two days later, even though he was the only sprinter who ran in both the 100 and 200 final, Williams beat Great Britain’s Walter Rangeley with a time of 21.8 seconds.
Across the country, the victories allowed Canada to feel like not such a little brother to the United States. Editorial cartoons depicted Uncle Sam looking confused while feeling the wind from Williams rushing by. It was the last time a non-American swept the events until 1972.
Williams’ win, however unexpected at that time, was far from the lone bright spot for Canada. The country won 15 medals, with the Bobbie Rosenfeld-led 4x100 relay team and high jumper Ethel Catherwood capturing the first Olympic golds by Canadian women. That 15-medal showing was greater than Canada’s combined results from the first three Summer Games after World War II. It also tops the country’s entire Summer Olympics haul for the entire 1960s. Perhaps that says something about a collective struggle to sustain sports success in anything but hockey.
The aftermath was not so rosy for Williams. The curse with champion sprinters is they are forever defined by running really fast once in youth. Such an athletic feat no longer belongs to the person who achieved it, but to a lot of hangers-on. Like Donovan Bailey decades later, he essentially faded into obscurity quickly. Williams was shy and the so-called ideals of amateurism then imposed on Olympic athletes prevented him from cashing in on his hard-won fame while many others were only so eager to turn a fast buck. He set a world record in 1930 at the British Empire Games, but failed to even reach the 100-metre final at the next Olympics in Los Angeles.
Williams, as an excellent recent biography by Samuel Hawley detailed, had difficultly building trust outside of his tight social circle. The facts that he never married, lived with his mother and eventually took his own life in 1982 fed the legend of a man of mystery, always narrowly defined by two races in 1928. Whoever he really was deep-down inside, Percy Williams was the first to put Canada on the Olympic map – and every Maple Leaf emblem on one of our athletes’ uniforms should be a reminder of him.
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