In 1981, the Brits made a movie about two obscure amateur sprinters who gained unexpected glory at the 8th Olympiad in Paris, in 1924. You might recall they put some orchestral music by Vangelis behind a title sequence that showed a band of men in white shirts and shorts running along the surf.
The heroes were a devout Scottish missionary who refused to run on Sundays and a determined Jew whose devoted trainer couldn’t get inside the stadium. Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for best film.
So you would think by now someone in Canada would have made the Percy Williams story as a movie. As Samuel Hawley makes abundantly clear in his biography I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human (Ronsdale $23.95), Williams’ ascendancy to Olympic superiority was far more unlikely, and his personal story was far more heart-wrenching.
Four years after that Chariots of Fire story of underdog purity, Williams astonished the world by winning both the 100- and 200-metre gold medals in 1928. Everyone was aghast. He was only five-foot-seven and weighed 126 pounds. But it was no fluke. Williams held the 100-metre world record from 1930 onwards until the advent of Jesse Owens in 1936.
As the biography makes clear, Williams was “so touchingly shy; so humble despite his talents; so much the epitome of the amateur tradition.” His unpaid trainer was a janitor at King George High School, an oddball named Bob Granger. They had no money, no facilities, no support. The pair never faced international competition until Williams breasted the tape in Amsterdam in 1928.
Williams’ triumph as a scrawny kid from nowhere made him into an overnight sensation, almost as well-known in North America as contemporaries Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. And because Williams wore a prominent maple leaf on his chest, his Cinderella victories inspired Canada to embrace the maple leaf as its symbol.
But Williams and Granger went their separate ways in 1932, having only track in common. Williams found any sort of publicity excruciatingly painful. He was cantankerous with reporters and suspicious of anyone who wanted to use him. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear.
“I always thought it was a lot of hogwash to say that you ran for your flag and your country,” he said. “I was out there to beat the guy beside me.”
Reclusive and alcoholic, the lightest sprint champion in the history of the Olympics carried a very heavy heart. In 1982, Percy Williams put a 12-gauge shotgun to his forehead and blew his brains out, exactly 12 years after his trainer Granger died in a nursing home in Parksville. His cremated remains can be visited in the Masonic Cemetery in Burnaby, overlooked by a telephone pole.
Oddly, Percy Williams never much liked running in the first place. He mostly ran to satisfy the expectations of others, particularly his unconventional trainer. After Granger’s funeral, Williams was asked how much credit ought to be accorded to Granger for his Olympic wins, and he replied, “Offhand, I’d say a hundred per cent. I’d never have continued running after high school, but for him. I couldn’t have cared less about running at the time.”
If there has been a more thorough and necessary sports biography of a British Columbian in recent decades, we haven’t seen it. 978-1-55380-1216-9
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World's Fastest Human