Vancouverite Percy Williams is the most famous of the Canadians participating in the 1928 Summer Olympic Games at Amsterdam, Netherlands, having captured gold in the men’s 100-metre and 200-metre sprints, and a bronze medal in men’s 4x100-metre relay. Other than Williams, no other Canadian won more than one gold medal at the Games. The other gold medals were won by Ethel Catherwood in the women’s high jump, and the 4x100-metre women’s relay team of Ethel Smith, Bobbie Rosenfeld, Myrtle Cook and Florence Jane Bell.
Among Williams’ teammates in the 4x100-metre relay was James “Jimmy” Ball of Dauphin, Manitoba, who himself became a multiple-medal winner at the Amsterdam Olympics.
In fact, Ball ranks as the most successful Summer Games Olympian in Manitoba’s history, having captured three medals — a silver and two bronze — in Amsterdam and four years later in Los Angeles.
Today, Manitobans are familiar with Olympians from our province such as Clara Hughes, who is noted as the only woman in the world to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Games (six in total, one of which was a Summer Olympics bronze in cycling at Atlanta), but it’s highly unlikely that many are familiar with the name of Jimmy Ball as a world-class competitor in two separate Olympics.
The headline in the August 4, 1928, Manitoba Free Press was, Jimmy Ball Fails by Inches to Capture 400 Metre Final.
According to the Canadian Press report: “By the margin of eight inches Canada lost what would have been her third Olympic triumph today (August 3). Jimmy Ball, of Winnipeg (he was then a pharmacy student at the University of Manitoba), started his furious rush in the four hundred metres a fraction of a second too late and could not overtake Ray Barbuti, of the United States, who plunged his chest across the tape and fell flat on the red cinders, as the flying Canadian passed him. Had the race been a yard or two longer, Ball would undoubtedly have won.The falling finish probably gave Barbuti his victory.”
Of course, the race was not “a yard or two longer,” and the victor was the American who crossed the finish line of the 400-metre sprint first.
If Ball had won the race, he would have been the first Manitoban to capture an individual Summer Olympics gold medal. Ten individual Manitobans have won silver or bronze medals, but none has captured a gold.
The only Summer Games team gold medals won by Manitobans was in lacrosse, when the Winnipeg Shamrocks, who captured the top award at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis, and by the Winnipeg Falcons in 1920, who won the top spot in ice hockey at Antwerp (Canada’s first hockey gold). It seems strange, but when ice hockey was first introduced to the Olympics in 1920, it was a Summer Games event. In 1924, ice hockey first became part of the Winter Games.
“Barbuti,” continued the CP report, “ran the race in 47 4-5 seconds, one fifth of a second slower than the Olympic record. He took the lead at the final turn and held it in the face of Ball’s magnificent bid. The Canadian’s determination and stamina were equal to his demands, but his judgement was at very small fault.”
Canadian team officials later said that Ball had started his finishing kick too late, and thus failed to overtake the American. It was inexperience that cost Ball the race, according to officials, which was also an opinion expressed by many others who observed the race.
Ball’s performance at Amsterdam became another instance of an historical “what could have been.” His mother said after the results of the race arrived in Canada: “Only second. Isn’t that too bad.”
Ball, who was born in Dauphin on May 7, 1903, came to Winnipeg to first work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then entered pharmacy at the University of Manitoba. Immediately after the race, the university’s student union telegraphed its congratulations to Ball for winning the silver medal.
The fact that so many believed him to be inexperienced at Amsterdam probably arose from Ball being a relative newcomer to racing. He only began running at 18 years old and had little international experience leading up to the Olympics. More important, Ball was unfamiliar with racing in staggered lanes then used at Amsterdam, which is a system still in use today to give each runner the same distance to cover during a race as their competitors. As such, the 400-metres is classified as a sprint rather than a distance race.
Ball burst upon the Canadian track scene in 1925, wining the Manitoba and the Western Canada individual and intercollegiate championships. In 1927, he took first place in both the 400-metre and the 4x400-metre relay at the Canadian track-and-field championships.
He became Canada’s best 400-metre runner at the Canadian Olympic Trials at Hamilton in 1928. He set a new Canadian record of 49.4 seconds and then broke it by nearly a second, recording a time of 48.6.
After Amsterdam, Ball recorded victories in numerous races across Europe. At the Tailteann Games in Dublin, Ireland, Ball broke the Irish records for the 200- and 400-metre races with times of 21.6 and 48.8 seconds, respectively, and was awarded the Tailteann Queen Trophy for the outstanding performance at the meet.
The world record of 19.19 seconds for the 200 metres is held today by Jamaican Usain Bolt, while Michael Johnson of the U.S. holds the world record for the 400 metres with a time of 43.18.
He won numerous races and awards throughout his athletics career.
Ball was awarded the Norton H. Crowe trophy for outstanding performance and sportsmanship in 1933, and has been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Ball died on July 2, 1988.
Manitobans to watch at the London Olympic Summer Games, which start this weekend:
• Clara Hughes: Cycling, road (time trial and road race)
• Janine Hanson: Rowing, women’s eight (coxed sweep oars)
• Morgan Jarvis: Rowing, lightweight men’s double scull
• Kevin Kowalyk: Rowing, men’s double scull
• Desiree Scott: Soccer, women’s
• Nicole Edwards Sifuentes: Athletics, 1,500 metres
• Chelsea Stewart: Soccer, women’s
• Alternates: Sarah-Anne Brault, Triathlon, women’s open; Leah Kirchmann, Cycling, road (time trial and road race)