The Fastest Human

Bobby Kerr was the first Irish sprinter to win an Olympic gold, writes Marion Maxwell

Little did George and Rebecca Kerr think when they emigrated to Canada with their four children in 1887 that their only son Bobby would return to visit his native Fermanagh as ‘the world’s fastest human’. Bobby Kerr was to become the first Irishman to win an Olympic sprinting medal and the smallest Irishman ever to win Olympic gold.

The record books say Kerr was born in Enniskillen. Perhaps he found it easier telling people he was from the county town, for who in Canada would have heard tell of Coolatraine, a townland near Florencecourt on the banks of the Arney River? Born on June 9, 1880, he was christened in Wheathill Methodist Church.

Kerr was six when the family arrived in Ontario, settling briefly in Kemptville, then in Hamilton, attracted like other immigrants by that industrial city’s employment opportunities. As a child, Kerr’s running talent first came to notice at community picnic races. His reputation for being quick off the mark helped to get him his first job with the fire brigade of the farm machinery company, International Harvester.

Chalking up his first important sprinting successes in the 1902 Hamilton Coronation Games, Kerr began serious training towards the 1904 Olympics in St Louis and started saving for his expenses. He made the squad but earned no medals. Later, he recalled how he had set out with 75 hard earned dollars in his pocket, sat up all night in a rail car and arrived with no time for race preparation.

Kerr’s rigorous conditioning programme was self-devised and enlightened for his day. A true amateur, he thought nothing of having to fit his training schedule round a 12 hour working day. His quick start, powerful stride and natural grace were much admired features of his running, but, as with all top athletes, character also contributed to his success. A Toronto reporter wrote:

‘You feel you are in the presence not of an athlete merely but of a man of strong character and of sound sense – a boy clean of life, absolutely honest, modest and retiring.’

Kerr neither ‘smoked, chewed nor drank’ and at 1.7m would be considered diminutive by today’s top sprinters. In 1905, he became Canadian Sprint Champion, and in 1907 widespread successes secured him a place on the Canadian team for the 1908 Olympics.

As fame grew, so did the financial burden. However, testament to his popularity, the people of Hamilton came together many times to help out, staging the Bobby Kerr Games to raise funds. London was the venue in 1908 for both the British Championships and the Olympic Games. The events provided the arena for one of sprinting history’s greatest rivalries: Bobby Kerr of Canada v R E Walker of South Africa.

The Championships doubled as an Olympic warm up. Kerr beat Walker to take the 100 yards (91.4m) British title in 10 seconds flat, then added the 220 yards (201.1m) title with a time of 22.4 seconds. A fortnight later, the two rivals lined up in the Olympics. Unlike Walker, Kerr was entered in two events, so to qualify in both he found himself having to compete six times over four days.

Coming into the 100 yards final, he had already run his 220 yards semi-final heat that morning. This time, gold went to Walker, with a time one full second off Kerr’s personal best. Some said Kerr was stale, blaming an over-zealous English trainer. Later, he himself reflected:

‘The result was a bitter disappointment. I decided to break training and that evening I joined friends in London and went to a theatre. I stayed out late and slept late the following morning and I did no training whatsoever before the 220 yards.’

His instinct proved right, for, in the 220 yards event, he clocked up a blistering 22.2 seconds in the opening heat, easily making the final. Leading from the start, he crossed the tape to take the gold medal in 22.6 seconds. Fresh from his London triumphs, Bobby Kerr travelled to ‘the old country’. Guest of honour at a victory banquet given by the Irish Amateur Athletic Association in Dublin, he hinted publicly that one of his dearest wishes was to run for his native Ireland.

The following year he returned to London to defend his twin British titles. Success eluded him this time but, true to his resolve, he travelled to Dublin to fulfill his ambition to run for Ireland.

Writing in the Fermanagh Herald of August 20 1960, David Guiney explains that Kerr’s arrival proved an embarrassment for the Irish Amateur Athletic Association. They had just picked the team to compete against Scotland at Ballsbridge, selecting Willie Murray and PJ Roche for the 100 and 220 yards respectively. These two offered to stand down, but the problem was diplomatically solved by the choice of Murray and Kerr for the 100 yards and Roche and Kerr for the 220 yards.

On Saturday July 17, 1909, Bobby Kerr fulfilled his dream of wearing the Irish vest and effortlessly won both events. His time of 22.2 seconds in the 220 yards had smashed the native record of 22.6 and equalled the all-comers record recently set by an American.

Because he had run for Canada in the Olympics, the embarrassed Irish officials could not now make up their minds whether to recognise Kerr as holder of a new Irish record. Eventually Kerr’s name was entered in the Irish record books as co-holder with the American Nate Cartmell of the all-comers record.

Guiney describes this as ‘an extraordinary decision’, considering Kerr was born in Fermanagh and competing for Ireland when he set the record. Leaving Dublin, Kerr made what would be his last visit to Fermanagh. On July 27, the Impartial Reporter records, he gave an exhibition of running at Portora Royal School Sports Day.

For the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, Bobby Kerr stood down with characteristic modesty in favour of a younger runner. If, at 30, his glory days were numbered, his involvement in athletics continued. For the next 30 years he was an untiring and inspirational figure in Canadian athletics at Olympic, national and local level.

Lasting memorials include election to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, over 400 trophies and medals which he presented for public display and, fittingly, the Bobby Kerr Sports Park. At just over four hectares, it occupies almost a third of the area of Kerr’s father’s old home farm in Coolatraine.

Bobby Kerr died aged 81 in 1963, leaving his wife Ida whom he married aged 40. They had no children. His death made national headlines. The Hamilton Spectator eulogised him thus: ‘It is doubtful if any individual ever earned the friendship and absolute respect of so many throughout not only Canada but the entire world.’