Olympic gold medals won by Percy Williams replaced 43 years after theft
VANCOUVER — More than 40 years after they were stolen, a pair of historic Olympic gold medals are back where they belong.
Sprinter Percy Williams stunned onlookers and inspired Canadians when he won both the 100 and 200-metre races at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, but his story was marked by a "dark cloud" after a thief snatched the awards from the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, said his cousin, Brian Mead.
That changed Friday when the Canadian Olympic Committee presented Williams' extended family with newly minted medals. The family then donated them back to the Hall.
“When people come now, they won’t see (evidence of the theft) or even hear it. They’ll look at his display, see his accomplishments, see his medals. And then they’ll go home thinking he was a great Canadian," Mead said.
"A week ago, when you came here, at the end of the wonderful tale, they emptied his case and they disrespected him. And that’s gone.”
Williams was a surprising athlete.
Born in 1908, he suffered rheumatic fever as a boy and told by doctors to take it easy. He didn't listen and instead drew attention for his natural speed despite his small stature, said B.C. Sports Hall of Fame curator Jason Beck.
“Physically, Percy Williams looked a lot different than what we expect a big, powerful, muscular sprinter to be today," Beck said. "He was only five foot six in height and weighed a wispy 125 pounds."
Expectations for the Vancouver native were low when he lined up to race in Amsterdam. After powering through the 100m heats and the semifinals, though, Williams streaked down the track in 10.8 seconds to take gold in the finals.
"(The win) was so unexpected that organizers had to scramble to find a Canadian flag for the medal ceremony," Beck said.
Days later, he finished first in the 200m race, too, becoming just the third athlete in history to win both events at the same Olympics. The feat has only been accomplished by nine male athletes today, including Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt.
Williams went on set a new 100m world record at the Canadian track and field championships in 1930 with a time of 10.3 seconds. The record stood until American Jesse Owens broke it in 1936.
The Canadian sprinter also took gold at the first ever British Empire Games in 1930, despite suffering what Beck called a "massive" muscle tear about 30 metres from the finish.
Though his leg was never the same, Williams continued to compete and ran at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, where he helped Canada finish fourth in the four-man relay.
His legacy goes beyond the track.
Beck said that George Stanley, who designed the modern Canadian flag, used the sprinter as inspiration, thinking back to a photo of Williams crossing the finish line in Amsterdam with a maple leaf emblazoned across his chest.
Williams was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1949 and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 before being made an Officer of Canada in 1979.
“This is a historic figure in Canadian sport history that a lot of Canadians don't know about. And I think it's important that Canadians do know," said Tricia Smith, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
After retiring from racing, Williams lived a largely reclusive life in Vancouver where he worked as an insurance agent. He took his own life in 1982.
Before his death, Williams donated a trove of his memorabilia to the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, including his medals. In 1980, just weeks after they were put on display, 16 of the medals were stolen, including the two Olympic golds. While some of the medals were returned anonymously about 15 years later, the golds were never recovered.
Peter Webster was general manager of the Hall in 1980 and discovered the theft.
“It was something that really upset me when it happened," he said. "I remember walking door to door, all the gold stores or pawn shops with no success. And I was sort of depressed about it all. And to see (the medals replaced), just takes the black cloud away.”
After learning about Williams and his legacy a few years ago, Brian and Tracy Mead asked the Canadian Olympic Committee to replace the medals.
The COC worked with the International Olympic Committee, which found the original moulds and specifications so the prizes could be remade.
The process was finally completed Friday when Smith handed Brian and Tracy Mead each a small brown box containing a medal exactly like the ones Williams received back in 1928. Each circular piece of gold has a raised image of a goddess sitting on a cloud and the words "Olympian Amsterdam 1928."
“I’m the polar opposite of an Olympic athlete, so to touch a gold medal is pretty unbelievable," Brian Mead said with a smile.
Placing the awards in Williams' display at the Hall was a special moment, Tracy Mead said.
“I think it’s pride," she said, her voice breaking and tears welling in her eyes. "We’re proud of his achievements and proud that we were able to bring the medals back.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press