Tribute to The Late Ken Farnum, OLY – Barbados’s First Olympian

It was with sadness that the Barbados Olympic fraternity and indeed also the Barbados Cycling community learned of the untimely passing of Ken Farnum, OLY on Saturday, April 4, 2020 at the age of 89 due to the complications of COVID-19. He was Barbados’ first Olympian.

During the late 1940’s and into the 1950s’ and early 1960’s Farnum was a cycling icon, not only in the Caribbean, but also in the United States.. He dominated the local and regional cycling scene and was virtually unbeaten in sprint events on the grass tracks of Kensington Oval in Barbados, Guaracara Park and the Oval in Trinidad, Boda Park in Guyana and Sabina Park in Jamaica.

Farnum ruled supreme at a time when Barbados had great grass track cyclists like Gary Hoppin, Lyle Carmichael  and Dobbie Douglas. John Skinner and Vernon Parris were just emerging, and these riders would vividly recall Farnum’s prowess.

In 1956 the Barbados cycling community wanted Farnum to compete at the Olympic Games, but Barbados had no Olympic Committee and was not a member of the IOC.  An avenue was discovered as Farnum was born in Jamaica and the eligibility requirements were not nearly as rigid as they are today. The Jamaica Olympic Committee agreed that he could compete under their banner as part of the Jamaica team.  

Kenneth ‘Ken’ Farnum at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games (Image credits: Ken Farnum, Jr)

So a young Ken Farnum found himself in Helsinki at the 1956 Olympic Games.  He vividly recalled that on arrival in Helsinki, he was awed by the sight of a cycling velodrome for the very first time, far less, never having had the opportunity to ride on one before.  His pedal cranks, designed to ride on a flat surface, were too long for the banked velodrome surface and he was lucky to borrow a pair of pedals from the British cycling team. He competed in the 1000m time trial, an Olympic event that at that time, had not yet been introduced to the Caribbean.  He placed 20th out of 38 riders.  He also competed in his pet event, a match sprint, placing 21st out of 33 riders.  The fact that he had never ridden in that environment before, won him praise from the international Olympic cycling fraternity.

After the Olympic Games, Ken Farnum migrated to the United States and New York City.  In the US, he became a highly respected rider during the late 1950s and early sixties.  As a successful black rider, in an overwhelmingly white sport, Farnum stood out wherever he raced and was greatly admired for his skill on the bike and his ever-powerful sprint.  He never competed in the Caribbean again.

Two years ago, the Barbados Olympic Academy entertained a visit from Ken Farnum and invited a number of individuals with whom he had competed while racing in these parts.   

On behalf of the Olympic fraternity, we extend sincere condolences to his family and many friends.


It was with much sadness that I learned of the passing of Ken Farnum, OLY.  I never had the opportunity to see Ken Farnum in action as when I arrived on the local cycling scene, he had already moved to New York.  However, I was intrigued by the many stories of his legendary exploits from the likes of Gary Hoppin, Lyle Carmichael and Dobbie Douglas.  Ken Farnum definitely played a prolific role in establishing the sport of cycling in Barbados. He wrote his name on history’s page both in the Caribbean and the United States. He is featured in a book “The Hearts of Lions: The history of American Bicycle Racing ” by Peter Nye a writer and board member of the US Cycling Hall of Fame.

I had the honour of meeting him on two of his last visits to Barbados and was fascinated by the many stories he had to tell.

There are a number of exhibits in the Barbados Olympic Museum that highlight his contribution to our sports history and my condolences are extended to his family and many friends.

May he rest in eternal peace.