Percy Williams 1908-1982
The World’s Fastest Human—in 1928

When Percy Williams of Vancouver won the 100- and 200-metre sprints at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, his triumphs set off one of the greatest celebrations for an individual in Canada’s history. He was, according to David Wallerchinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Olympics, “greeted with an enthusiasm reminiscent of the ancient Greek Olympics.”

There were a number of reasons for this. Percy was the obvious underdog. Only one Canadian had ever won a short distance race at the Olympics and that was 20 years earlier when Bobby Kerr won the 220-yard sprint. Percy was a skinny 20-year-old just out of high school who had never before competed in the 100-metre distance against such international stars as Frank Wykoff and Bob McAllister, both of the U.S., or Charles Borah of the U.S. and Hermit Koernig of Germany, famous for their internationally acclaimed 200-metre victories. He was also self-effacing. Writing in his diary after winning the Canadian Olympic trials in Hamilton, he mused, “I can’t quite understand yet, but they say winning the 100 metres puts me on the boat to Amsterdam.”

He arrived in Amsterdam without his coach, Bob Granger, who first saw him run as an 18-year-old at a high school track meet in Vancouver and virtually decided then and there that he could make him a winner at the 1928 Games. Granger had been left behind for lack of money, but funds were quickly raised by Williams’ mother and others in Vancouver to enable him to take a freighter a few days later to be on hand to coach Percy through the gruelling preliminary and the final races of the sprint competition.

Percy Williams of Vancouver won gold medals in both the 100- and 200-metre events at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the only time a Canadian has accomplished this extraordinary feat. This view, often attributed to his 100-metre victory at Amsterdam, actually records his stunning 100-yard victory two years later at the British Empire Games in Hamilton. [Photo, courtesy Ontario Track and Field Association]

Because there were 87 competitors for the 100-metre sprint, Percy was required to run three heats before the final. After winning the first and second heats, he made a modest observation in his diary: “I always imagined it (the Olympics) was a game of heroes. Well, I’m in the semi-finals myself so it can’t be so hot.” In the semi-final he came second to McAllister and then had two hours to kill before the final. Granger had him read a book and, just before the race, gave him a rubdown with coconut butter.

As he lined up between McAllister and Jack London, a 200-pound Guyanese running for Great Britain, he looked even skinnier than his 126 pounds. Others in the final were Wykoff, George Lammers of Germany, and Wilfred Legg of South Africa. After two false starts, the third was perfect for Williams as he shot into the lead and held onto it to win one yard ahead of London with Lammers third. Granger later described his own reaction to it as “ten seconds of breathless living,” but Williams recorded, “Well, well, well. So I’m supposed to be the World’s 100-metre champion (Crushed Apples). No more fun in running now.”

The next day the trials began for the 200-metre event. He won the first and then discovered that both Borah and Koernig would be competing in the next trial. Since only the winner and runner-up would move on, he had to beat one of them and Granger wisely counselled, “Don’t try to win. Run to beat whoever is running second.” Koernig won and Williams edged Borah. The next day in the semi-finals he eliminated Charlie Paddock, another favourite from the U.S., so the final pitted him against an American, Jackson Sholtz, another Canadian, John Fitzpatrick of Hamilton, Jacob Schuller and Koernig of Germany, and Walter Rangeley of Great Britain. The field was the fastest ever assembled up to that time.

Granger had new words of advice, telling his charge that Koernig was the man to beat. “He’s a front runner and if you come out of the curve even with him or just ahead of him, you will kill his inspiration and win.” Williams did just that. They came out of the curve, neck and neck, and 50 yards from the finish line, Percy shifted gears and shot passed Koernig to win by a yard over Rangeley. Koernig ended up in a dead heat with Sholtz for third place.

Bobby Kerr, captain of the 1928 Olympic team and the only other Canadian to ever win the event, hugged Williams at the finish line. “Won’t Granger be pleased?” Percy gasped as the crowd went wild. General Douglas McArthur, then president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, declared, “The Canadian Percy Williams is the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen and he will be even greater before his career is ended,” while Percy told reporters, “My lucky coin in the race was getting off to a good start.” His diary noted “Telegrams galore. The girls’ team sent flowers to me. Hot Dog!”

On arriving in Canada on September 14, he received more than just congratulatory messages. His mother was on hand to meet him as the ship docked at Quebec City and the mayor gave him a gold watch. Boarding a train, Percy and his mother received numerous other gifts and greetings. In Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde urged him “to stay Canadian.” In Toronto, thousands cheered him at the Canadian National Exhibition. Hamilton gave him a gold key and Winnipeg declared a “Percy Williams Day ”at the Polo Park racetrack. Thousands even showed up in Calgary where the stopover lasted only 15 minutes.

But all of the ceremonies paled in comparison to his welcome home in Vancouver where people jammed not only the train station but several downtown blocks as a school band played “Hail the Conquering Hero.” Schools were let out and 2,000 school children led a parade, with Percy, Granger, the Mayor, and the Premier seated in a touring car, to Stanley Park where 20,000 people were on hand to see “Peerless Percy,” as the papers dubbed him, presented with a brand-new Graham-Pagecoupe as well as a trust fund for his education that amounted to $14,500. Granger too was recognized, receiving $500 in gold. “Oh what a homecoming,” declared Premier S.F. Tolmie. “Never has there been such joy and pride.”

Williams’ double victory caused some American sportswriters to suggest he won because of the soft track conditions existing in Amsterdam, a claim Percy put to rest the following winter when he took part in several U.S. indoor track meets, setting one world record for the 45-yard distance and equalling three others. In August 1930, he set a new world record of 10.3 seconds for 100 metres in Toronto. Previously, he had tied the world mark for the 100-yards at 9.6 seconds. He also won the 100-metre race at the British Empire Games in Hamilton two weeks later but pulled a muscle in his thigh. Percy never reached the same form afterwards, being eliminated in the second qualifying run for the 100 metres at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Percy retired to become a successful insurance agent and take up golf. In 1950 he was voted by Canadian Press as the country’s top track and field performer of the half century but later admitted he never really enjoyed running. “Oh I was so glad to get out of it all,” he said in a 1954 interview. He never married but lived with his mother until her death and then alone until he was found dead at his home from a heart attack at age 74 in 1982.

Mel James