Percy Williams, Canada’s unlikely sprinting star
By winning the 100m and 200m at the Amsterdam Games in 1928, Vancouver native Percy Williams placed Canadian sprinting firmly on the global athletics map.
Born in Vancouver in British Colombia (CAN), Percy Williams took an unlikely path to sprinting stardom. During his teenage years, he suffered from acute rheumatic fever and was forbidden by doctors to get involved in sport of any kind.
Despite this handicap, in 1924, at the age of 16, he began to make a name for himself in local sprinting contests. Eager to compete at the Olympic Summer Games in Amsterdam in 1928, the precocious athlete worked as a waiter in a dining car in order to pay for his trip to the Canadian Olympic trials in Hamilton, Ontario.
Although he had not yet run in an elite-level race, Williams triumphed in the 100m in Hamilton, posting a time of 10.60 seconds, which equalled the Olympic record that Harold Abrahams (GBR) had previously set at Paris 1924.
Having also won the 200m, he subsequently set sail for Amsterdam as part of the Canadian Olympic delegation, which included his coach Bob Granger, who had managed to extract the best out of his charge’s talents employing training methods that were regarded as revolutionary at the time.
Stunning success in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium on 29 July 1928, Williams laid down a marker in the second round by again equalling the Olympic record of 10.60 seconds. The following day, he repeated the feat during the semi-final round, before going on to dominate the final, leading from start to finish and winning the gold medal in a time of 10.80 seconds, ahead of Great Britain’s Jack London (10.90) and Germany’s Georg Lammers (also 10.90).
Williams’ victory was such a surprise that Olympic officials were forced to delay the medal ceremony as they hunted for the Canadian flag and national anthem. That evening a large crowd gathered in front of Wiliams’ hotel, keen to catch a glimpse of the “Canadian champion”.
Amusingly, Williams, who was unknown outside Canada, came outside and mingled with the fans without revealing his identity. “I stood around, waiting for ‘him’ too, and talking to people. It was more fun,” he said.
Declining his coach’s advice to now forego the 200m, the determined Canadian claimed his second gold medal in a row on 31 July in 21.80, finishing ahead of Walter Rangeley (GBR) and Helmut König (GER), and becoming only the third sprinter in history – after the American pair of Archie Hahn (in 1904) and Ralph Craig (in 1912) – to achieve an Olympic sprint double.
Williams enjoyed a triumphant return to Vancouver, embarking on a confetti-filled parade attended by thousands of appreciative compatriots.
World record on home soil
In 1929, Williams enjoyed great success on tracks across North America, winning 19 of the 21 races he entered. In August 1930, he set a new 100m world record of 10.30 seconds in Toronto (CAN), which stood until the USA’s Jesse Owens broke it in 1936.
In addition, he bagged a gold medal in the 100 yard dash at the inaugural Commonwealth Games (then known as the British Empire Games) in 1930 in Hamilton with an exceptional time of 9.60 seconds. However, he injured himself in the process, and would subsequently struggle to regain his previous level.
Williams did take part in the Los Angeles Games in 1932, but was eliminated in the 100m heats. After retiring from the track he became an insurance agent. Half a century later, suffering from arthritis and depression, he tragically took his own life aged 74.