Rheumatic Olympian (1928)

CVA 99-3633 - Percy Williams in 100 Metre Final Olympic Games 1928 Stuart Thomson

CVA 99-3633 [Percy Williams in 100 Metre Final Olympic Games], 1928. Stuart Thomson photo. (Williams appears to be the runner on far left).

 In 1928, at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam, 20-year-old Vancouver native, Percy Williams, won the 100-metre race on July 30th and the 200-metre on August 1. As Ivan Ackery recounts in his memoirs of a life in Vancouver theatres, Fifty Years on Theatre Row, “the country just went nuts”. Mr. Ackery tells the story better than I can:

Just five years earlier, after a bout of rheumatic fever, doctors had told young Percy he’d have to avoid any undue physical strain. In spite of that advice, he’d become top sprinter at King Edward High School and in 1927 had defeated the U.S. runner, Charlie Paddock, unofficially billed as the wold’s fastest human being., in the 175-yard sprint.

Percy was sent to Amsterdam to represent Canada in the 1928 Olympics, but there was no financing to get his coach there. The public raised the money to send him over – on a freighter….

Twenty thousand people were out to meet Percy when he returned to Vancouver; Premier Tolmie, Mayor Taylor and all the dignitaries of the city and province. He was presented with a new car and his coach with a purse of $500.

Percy was a national hero. His mother was a lovely woman [a cashier at Capitol Theatre, which Ackery was managing at the time], and so proud of her son. Unfortunately, two years later a pulled muscle caused his withdrawal from the first British Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, and sometime in the thirties he had to retire. He’s living in Vancouver still [at the time Ackery’s memoirs were published in 1980], now retired from a career in the insurance business. (Ackery, p. 89)

I wish I could end this post on that relatively positive note, but a sad, final sentence on Percy’s life appears in a very detailed Vancouver Courier feature:  On Nov. 29, 1982, after his gold medals were stolen and while suffering from recent strokes, Williams ended his own life at 74 with a shotgun in the bathtub of his apartment at 1-905 Chilco St., a sad finish to the most extraordinary athlete in Canadian history.

For more on the life of Percy Williams, see this recently published biography by Samuel Hawley, I Just Ran (2011), and/or see Hawley’s website here.

CVA 371-249 - [Mayor L.D. Taylor congratulates Percy Williams on the stage of the Vancouver Opera House] 1928 Frank Leonard

CVA 371-249 [Mayor L. D. Taylor congratulates Percy Williams on the stage of the Vancouver Opera House], 1928. Frank Leonard photo.

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