Robert “Bobby” Kerr – Fermanagh’s Very Own Olympic Champion. John B. Cunningham.
In this year of the London Olympics with massive sponsorship for the top athletes, mutterings of undetectable doping, special diets and general hyperbole it is refreshing to read of the quiet man from Enniskillen who won both gold and bronze in the 1908 London Olympics. His interview which appeared in the Fermanagh Herald of 1909 when on a visit to his town of birth shows his quiet manner and method of training shows a true Olympian spirit and a huge contrast to today.
Robert “Bobby” Kerr (June 9, 1882 – May 12, 1963) was an Irish Canadian sprinter. He won the gold medal in the 200 metres and the bronze medal in the 100 metres at the 1908 Summer Olympics. Kerr was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, but his family immigrated to Canada when he was five, eventually settling in Hamilton, Ontario. While working as a fireman, Kerr also enjoyed running in his spare time. He soon became the best regional sprinter, and in 1904 he used his savings to travel to Saint Louis, United States and compete in the 1904 Summer Olympics. There, he was eliminated in the heats of all three events he entered (60 metres, 100 metres and 200 metres).
However, Kerr’s performances got better, and he set Canadian records in all sprint distances between 40 and 220 yards. He won Canadian titles in the 100 yards (1907) and 200 yards (1906 to 1908). In 1908, Kerr travelled to England, where he competed in the British Championships, winning both the 100 and 200 yards. At the 1908 Summer Olympics, held in London, Kerr was considered to be somewhat of a home favourite by the crowd, as they saw him as a representative of the British Empire. He greatly improved on his Olympic performances of 1904, placing for the final of the 100 and 200 metres. In the 100 metres, he finished in third (behind South Africa’s Reggie Walker and the United States’ James Rector) with a time of 11.0 seconds. In the final of the 200 metres, held the next day, Kerr crossed the line first with a time of 22.6 seconds. News of his victory set off celebrations in his home town Hamilton but I don’t see any evidence of this in Fermanagh.
After his sprinting career, Kerr remained active in sports. He coached the athletics and football teams of Hamilton, and was an official at the 1928 and 1932 Summer Olympics. In 1928, he witnessed Percy Williams succeeding him as Canadian winner of the 200 metres. Furthermore, he was involved in the Canadian Olympic Association, and helped organize the 1930 British Empire Games in Hamilton. Kerr died in Hamilton, aged 80. A park in his home town was named in his honour.
July 24th 1909. FERMANAGH ATHLETE’S RECORD. HAS WON OVER 300 PRIZES. Mr. Robert Kerr, who, as the representative of Ireland, won the 100 yards in 10½ seconds, and the 220 yards in 22 1/5 seconds at the International athletic meeting in Dublin on Saturday, visited Enniskillen, his native town, that evening. A Press representative afterwards interviewed him in the pleasant home of Mr. Henry Howe, Drumawill, a distance of some two miles from the “Island town.” Mr. Howe, it may be mentioned, is a prize-winner on an extensive scale in cattle at our various agricultural shows.
Mr. Kerr looked the very picture of health. He has a bronzed, determined face; finely developed, lithesome physique, and just looks all over the fellow to be a world’s champion. He was born where I met him at this interview some 25 years ago, says the Reporter. At about five years of age he went to Canada, where he has remained, with the exception of occasional visits to Ireland, ever since. It was only some five years ago that he took seriously to sprinting and in 1904 he won the championship of Canada in the 100 and 220 yards, doing the 100 in 9 4/5 seconds and the 220 in 21 3/5 seconds. He has held these championships ever since—that is in 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908—but this year, 1909, he will be in Ireland when the Canadian championship is being held.
His proudest year was of course, he says, 1903, when at London he won the English championship in the 100 and 220 yards, also the 200 metres championship of the world in 22 2/5 seconds. Altogether Mr. Kerr has captured over 300 valuable prizes—a record in itself.
As to training, he says he never goes through any real hard work. He dons his racing “togs” and goes out three times a week and practises starts and finishes, while once each week he completes the distances. Unlike many of our athletes, Mr. Kerr does not believe in any special diet while training. Eat plenty of good nourishing food, he says, and you are all right. He does not smoke, however, and is a strict teetotaller.
I asked him if he found much difference running in Ireland to running in America. He replied “Not much difference, but the Irish events are got over much smoother; they have no hitches, as is often the case in America.” His first appearance on an Irish course was on Saturday last at Dublin, he told me, but he added, “I hope it will not be my last. I was very much pleased with the reception I got,” he continued, “both from spectators and competitors alike.” He was sorry that Ireland was not better represented in the Olympic games at London last year, for in his opinion Ireland in athletics can hold its own with all nations. In his business capacity Mr. Kerr is in the employment of the International Harvester Company, Halifax.
John C. Cunningham 1-2-2012.