Black History Month is coming to a close, and to honour the occasion, we’re taking a minute to celebrate the contributions of Black Canadian athletes who have shaped our country’s history in sport. While these athletes often did not receive the fair and equal treatment they deserved, they paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
John Armstrong Howard
John “Army” Howard became the first Black Canadian to compete in the Olympics, at the 1912 Stockholm Games. His experience, however, was not the same as it was for the other athletes: he became the subject of racist news coverage throughout the Games and was forbidden to stay in the same hotel room as his white teammates. Unfortunately, a stomach problem prevented him from performing well in Stockholm, but he returned in 1919 to win the bronze medal in the 100m at the Inter-Allied Games.
Phil Edwards was given the nickname “The Man of Bronze,” because he won no less than five bronze medals at the Olympic Games, but none of any other colour. He earned these medals in the 4x400m at Amsterdam 1928, in the 800m, 1,500m and 4x400m at Los Angeles 1932 and another 800m bronze at Berlin 1936.
Ray Lewis was one of Edward’s teammates in the 4x400m in 1932, and was the first Canadian-born Black athlete to win a medal at the Olympic Games. The Hamilton native was named to the Order of Canada in 2001, and a Hamilton elementary school was named after him following his death in 2003.
Barbara Howard was the first Black woman to represent Canada in international competition when she competed in Sydney, Australia in the 1938 British Empire Games. Unfortunately, she never had the chance to compete at the Olympics, since the 1940 and 1944 Games were not held during World War II. She was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Possibly one of the most celebrated Canadian sprinters of all time, Harry Jerome was the grandson of Army Howard. In July 1960, he tied the world record in the 100m, and he went on to set six more world records throughout his career. He also competed in three Olympic Games, winning bronze in the 100m at Tokyo 1964. After he retired, Jerome helped create Canada’s ministry of sport, and used his platform to bring attention to the struggles facing Black Canadians.
Jerome died from a brain aneurysm in 1982 at 42, but his legacy lives on. There is a statue of him in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2001.
Rosey Edeh competed at the Olympics three times — in 1988, 1992 and 1996. She won a bronze medal as a member of the 4 x 400m team at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and was also a member of the gold medal-winning 4 x 400m relay team at the 1992 Track and Field World Cup. In 1996 at the 400m hurdles Olympic final, Edeh also set a Canadian record that remained untouched for 23 years, until it was broken by Sage Watson in 2019.
A five-time Olympian, Charmaine Crooks was a part of the silver medal-winning 4x400m team at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and has won multiple medals at the PanAm and Commonwealth Games. She was also chosen to be the flag bearer for Team Canada at Atlanta 1996, and received the IOC Women in Sport award in 2006.
Angela Bailey won a total of eight medals in International competitions, including three golds at the Pacific Conference Games, three silver medals at the Commonwealth Games, and one silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games as a part of the 4x100m relay team. Sadly, Bailey passed away from lung cancer in 2021, but her 100m personal best of 10.98 seconds is still the second-fastest Canadian performance of all time.
Angella Issajenko was also on the relay team that won silver in 1984, and has two medals from the PanAm Games and seven from the Commonwealth Games. Her Canadian record of 10.97 in the 100m time (from 1987) still stands.
Donovan Bailey became a household name in 1996 when he won Canada’s first-ever gold medal in the 100m at the Atlanta Olympics, setting a world record in a time of 9.84 seconds. He went on to win a second gold medal at the same Olympics as a part of the men’s 4x100m relay team.
After transitioning from long jump to sprinting, Surin landed on the podium in several world competitions, both as an individual and member of a relay team. He ran the third leg of the gold medal-winning 4x100m relay team in 1996 and later tied Bailey’s Canadian record in 1999 at the World Championships for second place. Surin became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2021.
Also a member of the gold medal relay team, Gilbert competed in four summer Olympic Games and one winter in the bobsleigh at Lillehammer 1994. He has been head coach of Athletics Canada since 2017 andd coached Team Canada at the Pyeongchang and Tokyo Games.