A fleeting glimpse at a champion

Most people are familiar with the iconic statue of a runner in Vancouver's Stanley Park. Mounted right on the waterfront, the city's skyline a glitter behind, the figure's chest is pushed out.

Most people are familiar with the iconic statue of a runner in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

Mounted right on the waterfront, the city’s skyline a glitter behind, the figure’s chest is pushed out.

Connected to the base only by the tip of his left toe, the right leg bends at the knee and his arms, like wings, extend behind him.

Most people recognize the statue, but don’t know the athlete it remembers.

Charles Officer was one such person.

A director, he was commissioned to put the late Harry Jerome’s story on film. But the 35 year-old filmmaker didn’t hear about the ‘60s sprinter until 1998.

In 2002, as a date for the Harry Jerome Awards in Toronto, Officer started to realize everything he didn’t know.

“You first hear about somebody and then you hear a little bit more and you think, ‘holy cow,’” says Officer. “Then you dig in to actually do a film, or something, and then you’re like, ‘holy, holy cow.’ There was so much I didn’t know before I started this whole journey, so it’s been amazing.”

Officer had just wrapped his internationally acclaimed, Nurse. Fighter. Boy. when he received an e-mail, out of the blue, from producer Selwyn Jacob.

Jacob has been a lifelong fan of Jerome’s and always wanted to make a film about him.

Jacob’s friend, Fil Fraser had similar aspirations that were realized through his 2006 book, Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome.

Officer grabbed a copy of the book, read it and developed an idea for the film.

“It was not what the film was, in the end,” he says laughing. “As you dig deeper you discover what you really want to say.”

It took about a year of researching, making contacts and building trust before Officer’s film to really start taking shape.

His Mighty Jerome will be screening here in Whitehorse for the Available Light Film Festival this Friday.

Jerome’s sister and fellow Olympian, Valerie, refused to take part in the film because of her reservations about the book. Officer didn’t want to delve into her objections, but his project works without her.

The film’s strength comes from the time Officer spent with rest of Jerome’s family – his ex-wife Wendy, his daughter and then his mother.

Their contributions really made this movie personal, says Officer.

“It was an amazing ‘in’ to a perspective about a human being that I couldn’t speak to anymore,” Officer says, remembering Wendy’s collection of things from Jerome’s life that she keeps solely because of her love for him.

“Then when I met his mother, that blew everything open for me.”

Officer began to find and see Jerome’s spirit, he says.

He started to become more than just an athlete, in Officer’s mind.

“I take a lot from this guy,” he says. “It takes a certain kind of spirit, a special kind of spirit, to endure certain things.”

Harry Jerome could run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds. In fact, during the 1960 Olympic Trials in Saskatoon, judges rounded the 9.90 seconds world record up to 10 seconds (Jerome’s record made in the previous month) because officials refused to believe it.

Jerome competed for Canada in three summer Olympics, winning a bronze in 1964. He won gold at the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and at the 1967 Pan American Games. He set seven world records, holding or equalling four concurrently from 1963 to 1966.

At one time, he was the fastest man on the planet, and he championed equal opportunities for minorities as well, says Officer.

Simply because Jerome was black and a successful athlete, he became an icon for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

His athletic accomplishments catapulted him onto a politically charged world stage. And in Canada, where racial problems were often ignored, he was a silent leader of the time, says Officer.

Jerome died of a brain aneurysm in 1982, at the age of 42.

“He gave a lot of himself to the betterment of people,” he says “A different perspective on protest. He found his own way to revolutionize and, if you look between the cracks, you can really listen and feel the way he spoke.

“His athleticism taught him to be a leader in certain ways,” says Officer.

“It’s an amazing story and, for me, it was a forgotten story,” says Andrew Connors, director of the Available Lights Film Festival.

The festival does try to stay about half Canadian, but this film was not chosen because of that mandate.

“I think we all gravitate to inspirational films,” says Connors. “And you can’t have a film festival – especially in the Yukon – without hope.”

Growing up, like most Canadian kids, Officer idolized Wayne Gretzky.

Before an injury pushed him back towards filmmaking, Officer was drafted by the Calgary Flames, on his way to living that dream.

But what if he knew about Jerome as a child?

“Being a black person playing ice hockey, I had my issues,” he says. “They never made front page of a newspaper but they were actually really connected to the things that Harry Jerome experienced on a certain level.”

Mighty Jerome is playing at the Yukon Arts Centre this Friday at 5:30 p.m.

Both Selwyn Jacob, the film’s producer, and Officer will be there.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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