It was a cool Saturday night, blasts of rain and foggy, the last full day of competition at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics – and it had not been a great two weeks for the host country. Canada couldn’t manage a single gold medal, the only host of the Summer Games to this day to not put at least one athlete on top of the podium.
But on the last Saturday of July in 1976, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal without a roof, a silver set the country alight, an iconic Canadian Olympic moment for the ages.
Greg Joy was 20, longish brown-blond hair bouncing as he sprinted towards the high jump bar, and he crested 7-feet, 4 inches – 2.23 metres. The home crowd of 70,000 or so leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. Joy had topped then-world record holder Dwight Stones of the United States, who had rankled Montrealers with purported negative comments about French-Canadians and the organization of the Games.
Joy thereafter wasn’t able to hit the 2.25-metre mark, which saw the gold medal go to Jacek Wszola of Poland, but the silver was Canada’s first high-jump medal since a gold in 1932 and the moment reverberated with Canadians, then and now. Joy carried Canada’s flag in the closing ceremonies, was named Canadian male athlete of the year, and his jump was immortalized domestically as the second-final image of the O Canada montage that CBC television played each night as it went off the air.
“The nation embraced the moment,” said Joy in an interview on Tuesday after Canadian Derek Drouin won bronze in the high jump in London. “It became almost surreal. But the memory of it is like any distant memory. It’s more of an image than a memory now.”
On Tuesday, Joy watched Drouin win bronze on a television in the lobby of an office building across the street from Joy’s downtown Ottawa office. About a dozen people gathered, though the event lacked drama, as high jump wasn’t the focus of the broadcast, with other events such as the men’s 800-metre semi-finals happening around the same time.
It had been 40 years from Canada’s high-jump gold in 1932 to Joy’s silver in Montreal -- and another 36 before Drouin reached the sport’s podium on Tuesday.
“It’s great,” said Joy. “About time. We’ve had some pretty darned good high jumpers for many years and haven’t managed to get a medal. It’s good to see someone finally snatch one.”
The silver medal was the first of two peaks in Joy’s jumping career. Two years later in January, 1978, Joy set a world indoor record, 7-feet, 7 inches, 2.31 metres. The mark didn’t stand long, as it was topped by a centimetre two weeks later, and then twice more in March.
Joy is just one of three Canadians to have held a world record and won an Olympic medal. Sprinters Donovan Bailey and Harry Jerome are the others.
Joy, now 56, was born to Canadian parents in Portland, Oregon, and lived in Vancouver for about a decade to around age 18. He has called Ottawa home for the past two decades, where he lives with his wife, Sue Holloway, also a former Olympian, and works as an adjudicator at Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board. Joy has previously run the city’s food bank, and once ran for public office in 1995 as a Conservative under Mike Harris in Ottawa West but came second to the Liberals.
Joy used to coach high jump but is no longer involved in the sport. He feels Drouin’s success could propel a new generation of jumpers. As for his own iconic jump, a rallying point in a disappointing 1976 Olympics, Joy does get reminded of it most every day by someone, even if he doesn’t think of it much. It has become one of the singular Canadian performances at the Olympics in the minds of many Canadians, alongside the likes of Silken Laumann in 1992 and Bailey in 1996.
Joy, whose jump inspired so many Canadians, continues to watch each new generation of athletes at the Olympics, though, with a day job, “not as much as I can.”
“I watch a lot,” he said. “I love it. Every time the Olympics are on, I’m glued to the screen.”