Percy Williams: The Western Gazelle

Do you know who that bronze statue is in front of B.C. Place? He was the World’s Fastest Human. He was the first Canadian to win two Olympic Gold medals in track. He was born and raised right here in Vancouver. He was a champion, a hero, an icon. He was Percy Williams.

The identity of the Canadian legend still remains a mystery to many of us, even though we have all walked by his statue countless times. In the biography I Just Ran, Samuel Hawley resurrects one man’s legacy that has been unjustly forgotten, and relives a story that epitomizes what Canadians value the most: the classic underdog. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever as a young boy, Percy was told later in his teens that he had a leaky heart and had to refrain from any strenuous activity.  Overcoming his dismal prognosis, a recurring theme throughout his life, he was a force on the track, beating out opponents that were twice his size. Yet no one took notice of the reserved, scrawny kid. To the sprinting world Percy wasn’t a threat, he was a nobody, and was given little credit for making the Canadian Olympic team besides pure luck.

But that scrawny kid, that “nobody”, went on to do what everyone else besides his loyal coach, Bob Granger, had expected. He won two Olympic gold medals in the 100m and 200m races, never before accomplished by a Canadian athlete. With each win, Percy remained humble, reserved, polite, and courteous. You can’t get more Canadian than that.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of him. Although he was the fastest man in the world, he couldn’t out run the constant scrutiny. An extremely private person who was painfully shy, saying he was uncomfortable with his fame would be an understatement. He felt caged, trapped in a public life that he detested. It became clear to him that he was no longer Percy the athlete, but Percy the dollar sign. He was “expected to adhere to a draconian amateur code, [while] companies were freely cashing in on his name and his image”.

It was his athletic gift that earned him those medals, but in the end, it was what propelled him to his demise. Once naive, innocent, and reserved, years of constantly being pulled in every direction caused Percy to develop distrust, hostility, and resentment towards anyone besides his family and close friends.

Samuel Hawley has done his research. The amount of information he brought to the page made it clear that this biography wasn’t just about telling a great story, but rather a passion to justly bring recognition to a man who not only put our city, but our country, on the map. However, there are points in the novel where the depth of detail is so great that it is distracting. There were times when I found myself lost on a tangent of finite description that had little relevance to the story line, and made me confused as to why certain characters were brought into the biography at all, or why he felt it important to include so many historical facts that were insignificant. Nonetheless, Hawley flawlessly executed describing the Olympic races. It’s not easy building excitement when the reader already knows the outcome, but my heart was beating in anticipation with every yard gained by Percy’s lightning speed.

This is a story for every Canadian. It is a story for anyone who has participated in athletic sports and understands the politics and drama that accompanies competition. Even though Percy’s triumphs took place over eighty years ago, the relationship between sport and celebrity has stayed the same: everyone loves you when you’re on top, but quickly forgets you once you’re no longer number one.

Percy Williams didn’t get lost in celebrity, or fame, or fortune. It was everyone else that became lost in the flurry to cash in on what he had accomplished. To Percy, he just ran.