Family of Canadian track legend receives replica Olympic gold medals after originals were stolen

Vancouver sprinter Percy Williams won gold for Canada in the 100 and 200 metres at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.   ((Central Press/Getty Images) - image credit)
Vancouver sprinter Percy Williams won gold for Canada in the 100 and 200 metres at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. ((Central Press/Getty Images) - image credit)

Two stolen Olympic gold medals won by Canadian track legend Percy Williams 95 years ago are coming home. Sort of.

The medals are actually freshly minted replicas of the ones awarded to the Vancouver sprinter at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, recreated by the International Olympic Committee at the request of Williams family some four decades after the originals disappeared.

On Friday, they are being presented to the family and rededicated to the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

"We are very happy to have played a small part in renewing Percy's story," said family member Tracey Mead. "He was a great Canadian athlete and now his accomplishments will be back on display."

In 1928, the 20-year-old Williams was a relative unknown who outraced favourites from the United States, Germany and Great Britain to win gold in both the men's 100 metres and 200 metres. A school holiday was declared the day Williams arrived back in Vancouver and 25,000 people turned out to meet him at the train station.

Karin Larsen/CBC
Karin Larsen/CBC

The diminutive speedster held the 100m world record from 1930 to 1936 before it was broken by American hero Jesse Owens. In 1978, The Canadian Press named Williams Canada's greatest Olympian.

A statue of Williams stands outside the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in downtown Vancouver, but curator Jason Beck says Williams is perhaps Canada's greatest athlete who no one remembers.

"When I started out at the hall I would begin tours outside at the statue of Percy and ask people, 'Do you know who this person is?' No one would know. And then I'd tell the group ... and everyone was just astounded," said Beck.

"There's only nine male athletes in history that have ever [won the Olympic 100m and 200m], including Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt. So it's pretty amazing."

CBC Sports
CBC Sports

According to Beck, the IOC has a policy against re-striking medals but made an exception after the Williams family sent a request that included the signature of 102-year-old Della Williams Riedel, who was eight years old when Williams — her future second cousin by marriage — raced to glory in Amsterdam.

Medals stolen in late-night heist

Williams was a big supporter of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame when it first opened on the grounds of the Pacific Coliseum in the mid-1960s, donating a number of items. In 1980, his two Olympic gold medals were stolen when someone smashed the glass case they were locked in during a late-night heist.

At the time, gold prices were at historic highs and suspicions were that the thief or thieves probably melted the medals down, even though they contained little precious metal.

Beck says the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame is grateful to the Williams family for rededicating the replicas and for putting to rest a sad story of stolen glory.

BC Sports Hall of Fame
BC Sports Hall of Fame

"We've never had any items other than Percy's 1928 Olympic gold medals stolen from our collection [and] it's not something anyone here is proud of," he said. "But it also puts the spotlight on Percy, on probably the most underrated Canadian Olympic athlete of all time."

Williams passed away in 1982 at the age of 74.