Photo by unknown photographer on Wikimedia

Britain’s First Black Olympic Medalist

Neil Duncanson

 Harry Edward, via Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Edward took a deep breath, pushed his spikes into the holes he’d just dug in the sodden cinder track and dropped his head.

A vos marques.

It was the biggest race of his life. The 100 metres final at the 1920 Olympic Games, in Antwerp.

Preparez vous.

As he waited for the gun to blast, a Belgian official shouted at American champion Charley Paddock to pull his hands back behind the line. The instruction broke Edward’s focus and concentration and he relaxed a little, expecting a delay or even a call to stand up.


Instead, the pistol fired and he was left trailing as the small crowd roared and the world’s fastest men disappeared in front of him. With his fluid, eight-foot stride, he managed to catch almost all of them as he blasted down the outside lane, but as the six men hit the tape it was Paddock first, fellow American Morris Kirksey second and, incredibly, the fast-finishing Edward was judged to have pipped Jackson Scholz on the line for third.

In those early Olympic years a British bronze medal was greeted amiably enough, he even got another in the 200 metres, but his exploits did not trouble the front pages. In truth, they hardly troubled the sports pages. It was, however, a genuinely significant moment.

As he climbed down from the podium after receiving his medal, a watching black American athlete ambled shyly across the in-field to talk to him. “Do you know that you are the first man of colour to stand on the platform of Olympic winners?” he explained.

That wasn’t actually the case, though Harry Edward was indeed Britain’s first black Olympic medal winner and he enjoyed an extraordinary running career – once winning the 100, 220 and 440-yard titles at the AAA championships inside a single hour – and being personally congratulated by King George V.

Antwerp Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, via IOC (public domain).

Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100m champion later depicted in the film Chariots of Fire, described him as one of the greatest sprinters he ever saw, but as the years rolled by Edward’s wonderful track exploits quickly faded from memory and they are now reduced to a few anonymous lines in the record books. The man himself has been forgotten. And, as I was to discover, Harry Edward was no ordinary man.

Fast forward to the groundhog days of the Covid pandemic and I was writing a new edition of my book The Fastest Men on Earth, the stories of the men’s Olympic 100 metres champions. This time, I had decided, it would include the lives of the silver and bronze medal winners. And that’s when Harry Edward entered my life.

I knew his name from the record books, a bronze medallist at the 1920 Olympics in both the 100 and 200 metres. Beyond that, I knew nothing. My research began on the internet and generated precisely nothing. This was unusual; how could there be no record of him at all? I trawled the British newspapers and magazines and, once again, came up empty. Nothing post-1922, not even a one-paragraph obituary. Harry Edward had simply disappeared.

Cutting a very long story short, my digging finally led me to the United States and the Amistad Center, a research and museum facility in New Orleans devoted to America’s racial and ethnic history. They had some records, photographs and papers relating to Harry, donated to them by his family after his death, and after a number of phone calls to explain my interest, they were happy to help.

Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet and pay a visit to the Amistad, a small unit cocooned within Tulane University, a short tram ride from the centre of New Orleans. I spent several days going through the nine giant boxes that gradually gave up the story of Edward’s remarkable life. Among the scrapbooks, letters, clippings and personal family memorabilia was Harry’s memoir – in fact, there were several versions written over a period of 30 years.

A 257-page typewritten ‘final draft’, along with more detailed chapters of various parts of his life, which I was able to edit together, along with a treasure trove of never-before-seen pictures, had been sat in a box gathering dust for 50 years. He’d called his memoir “When I Passed the Statue of Liberty I Became Black” – and sub-titled it “The Autobiography of an Ex-European”. It is no standard sporting opus. It is an eye-opening piece of work which traces his globe-trotting adventures as a kind-hearted, self-effacing, smart, liberal-minded evangelist for human rights, a man way ahead of his time, as he moved through some of the twentieth century’s most seismic events – from the misery of a Great War internment camp, through the Depression and the struggle for civil rights in America, to the internecine politics of Vietnam. The last paragraph of his memoir reads: “I hope that the story of my economic struggles in the face of racial obstacles may provide similar encouragement and inspiration and contribute in some constructive ways to urgently needed reforms and changes.”

This wasn’t a man who simply played passive witness to some of the century’s most tumultuous events and issues, Harry Edward lived, breathed and fought in them, and his Zelig-like story screamed out to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Completely steamrollered by the quality of the man, I made it my mission to do just that.

. . . .

Edward was born in Berlin, back in 1898, to a Prussian piano teacher and a father who became a cabin boy to escape grinding poverty in the British colony of Dominica, and, arriving in Europe, worked as a circus entertainer and a popular Maitre D at some of the German capital’s top restaurants.

By his teens, Edward could speak fluent German, French and English and was showing both academic and athletic promise. His speed was first noticed at a track meet in Berlin, at the city’s new stadium built to stage the 1916 Olympics, where, at just 16, he placed second in the 100 metres to the German champion and won the 200. It was June 28th, 1914. A few hours earlier Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been shot dead in Sarajevo, an event which foreshadowed a chilling chain reaction among European governments.

The war would change his life. As a British subject resident in Germany, the secret police soon came calling and after six months of forced curfew he was arrested and, completely alone, whisked off to Spandau, on the outskirts of Berlin, where he was interned in the grim POW camp at Ruhleben – literal translation “Life of Rest”.

Edward’s account of his time in the camp, almost four years of it, is depressing and entertaining in equal measure. He won the camp sports day races, joined the dramatic society, and made lasting friendships, while also witnessing daily torture, brutality and death. He existed on meagre rations, augmented by wood shavings, and slept in a freezing, old stable block. “The quality of the food grew progressively worse; black bread was adulterated with sawdust, potato peelings, and powdered bones. Horsemeat of animals killed at the front was pickled in brine and sent to prison camps. Turnips were served as the only vegetable every day for four to five weeks.”

Ruhleben was among the first camps to be liberated at the end of the war and in the winter of 1918 he found himself in London, where he learned he had passed the exams he’d taken in the camp and secured a job as a teacher of German and French. “In this post-war period it was sports again which provided me with an opportunity to emerge as an individual and to express my philosophy.”’ In his first track meet in Britain, at Stamford Bridge, he won two prizes. He swept the sprint events at the 1920 AAAs and was selected for the 100, 200 and sprint relay team at the Antwerp Games, alongside a young Abrahams. Harry battled his way through to the final of the 100 metres before falling victim to the calamitously bungled start.

“I put tremendous effort into my strides, found myself about four feet behind the leaders at half distance, regained an improved forward-leaning position and ended with a tremendous burst, passing everybody at the end. Alas, I passed them about three feet behind the finishing line. The judges gave me third place. There was a great delay before the results were announced. Every participant sensed or knew that the start had been a doubtful one. Scholz, a US finalist, said to me at the end of the race that it had been a false start. He had been left on his knee at the start.”

The following year Edward defended his sprint titles at the AAAs, but it was 1922 that would go down as the zenith of his athletic career, winning countless titles, handicaps and invitationals – though in those strict amateur days the biggest prize he could earn was seven Guineas – culminating with the AAAs where, inside one hour, he placed first in the 100, 220 and 440-yard finals – a record that has never been beaten.

In 1923, inspired by an invitation to run at New York’s Yankee Stadium, he emigrated to the US. “Upon my setting foot on the soil of the United States of America I learned very soon that among all the classifications given me, the designation ‘Negro’ was the most significant,” he wrote later. Edward’s performances on the US tracks were disappointing and he continued his extraordinary life story away from the track, odd-jobbing round New York, then moving to Philadelphia. He lost his job while fighting school segregation, then set up food and milk co-operatives in Harlem. In the 1930s he returned to New York, divorced and remarried, and became the administrative director of the Negro Theatre, working with the likes of John Houseman and Orson Welles, and staging the first version of Macbeth with a black cast. He spent the Second World War heading an uptown rationing operation for the Office of Price Administration, and when hostilities came to an end, he volunteered to join the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. They sent him to Greece.

Charley Paddock crosses the finish line, with Harry Edward on the far left, via Wikimedia Commons.

En route and accompanied on a bumpy seaplane ride by a collection of snooty British civil servants, he returned to London for the first time and wondered how he would be treated. “After disembarkation at Poole all passengers had to pass through British security. The supervising officer of that service looked at my American passport then bestowed a long look upon me ending in the query: ‘Ain’t you Harry Edward of the Poly Harriers, the former British champion?”

Post-war he returned to the States and took another grey clerical job, this time at the New York Employment Office, a role he continued until retirement in the late sixties. But he continued to work abroad and travelled to Vietnam to set up a US-sponsored foster kids program and worked at the United Nations and the New York Mayor’s office, greeting foreign dignitaries. 

Edward ought to be revered as a legend of British sport, mentioned in the same breath as Abrahams and Eric Liddell. But he isn’t. When he died, after a heart attack on a trip to visit his sister Irene in Germany in 1973, the New York Times printed a five-paragraph obituary, while the black New York Amsterdam News printed a larger article, alongside a picture of Edward with King George V back in 1922. Not a single line was printed in the British press.

It was scant recognition for a true sporting pioneer and a man who lived his life on the coalface of so much 20th century political change, but proof positive, were it needed, that his racing career and the wonderful, eclectic life that followed, had been essentially airbrushed from history. Today, more than 50 years after his death, he would surely be crestfallen to learn that the struggles he endured daily have not materially changed?

In his last years he tried desperately to find a publisher for his memoir, pounding the streets of New York and writing hopefully to publishers and friends in England. All to no avail. Until now. Harry would have been delighted that his story will finally be made public, and by no lesser body than Yale University Press, and despite its vintage, it remains as valuable, instructive, and sobering as it did when he completed it more than 50 years ago.

Harry Edward (1898–1973) was a sprinter who became Britain’s first Black Olympic medalist, winning two medals at the 1920 Antwerp Games. He subsequently emigrated to America.

Neil Duncanson is chair of the television production company North One and an award-winning executive, producer and writer.

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