Curtis “Curt” Melvin Harnett, CM, cyclist (born 14 May 1965 in Weston, ON). A three-time Olympic medallist, Curt Harnett is the only Canadian cyclist to medal at multiple Olympic Games. He also won two silver medals at both the World Track Cycling Championships and the Commonwealth Games, a bronze medal at the Pan American Games and eight UCI World Cup medals (five gold and three silver). In 1995, he became the first cyclist to break the 10-second barrier in the men’s 200 m time trial with a world record time of 9.865 seconds. Harnett served as Canada’s chef de mission at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2016 Olympic Summer Games. A Member of the Order of Canada, he has been inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and the Canadian Cycling Hall of Fame.
Curt Harnett is the youngest of three children of Jean and Melvin Harnett. He has two older sisters, Michele and Nicole. His mother, Jean, was of Ukrainian and Croatian descent, while his father, Melvin, was of German and Irish heritage.
Harnett’s family moved from Weston, Ontario, to Winnipeg when he was eight months old. When he was 11, the family moved to Thunder Bay, where Jean managed a bowling alley owned by Harnett’s grandfather.
Curt first cycled at age five. But he started playing hockey, his primary sport, when he was three. His idol was Montreal Canadiens star Yvon Cournoyer. In 1982, Harnett was drafted by the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. (See also Canadian Junior Hockey.)
To stay in shape for hockey during the summer, Harnett was encouraged by his high school football coach, Harry Curtis, to try competitive cycling. Curtis was also the president of the Thunder Bay Cycling Club and was trying to establish a cycling program at the high school. Harnett trained on a bike that was too big for him, wearing a hockey helmet, motorcycle gloves, gym shorts and running shoes. He eventually won the Thunder Bay high school cycling championships.
Harnett also competed in motocross as a youth but had numerous accidents. He broke his collarbone and wrist in separate incidents. Over time, Harnett’s passion for cycling exceeded his passion for hockey, and cycling became his primary sport. Harnett appreciated the support he received from his family, particularly his father, after he ditched a potentially lucrative career in the high-profile sport of hockey for a path of “wearing spandex, shaving your legs” in the more obscure sport of track cycling.
Early Cycling Career
In 1982, Harnett won gold in both the road race and the individual pursuit at the Canadian National Junior Cycling Championship in Edmonton. He also won a silver medal in the men’s 1000 m.
In the 1980s, Harnett split his time between Toronto, Thunder Bay and Brampton, Ontario. He lived with his sister in Toronto and with his coach, Des Dickie, in Brampton. Due to a lack of sufficient cycling facilities in Southern Ontario, Harnett trained in Trinidad and Tobago for the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. He finished in fourth place in the men’s 1000 m time trial.
The next major international competition for Harnett was the 1984 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. There, the 19-year-old Harnett won the silver medal in the men’s 1000 m with a time of 1:06.44. It was only the third Olympic medal for Canada in cycling.
In 1985, Harnett graduated from Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay.
At the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, Harnett won his first and only gold medal at a major multi-sport competition. He won the gold medal in the men’s 1000 m time trial with a time of 1:05.83, and a bronze medal in the men’s 200 m sprint.
In 1990, Harnett won silver in the men’s 1000 m match sprint at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. He then won his first world championship medal at the 1990 World Track Cycling Championships in Maebashi City, Japan, taking silver in the men’s amateur sprint.
At the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Harnett won the bronze medal in the men’s sprint for his second Olympic medal. He beat Roberto Chiappa of Italy 2–0 in a best-of-three bronze medal match. He became the first Canadian cyclist to medal at multiple Olympic Games. At the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Harnett won silver in the men’s 1000 m match sprint.
At the 1995 World Track Cycling Championships in Bogotá, Colombia, Harnett made cycling history by becoming the first cyclist ever to cycle under 10 seconds in the men’s 200 m. He posted a time of 9.865 seconds in qualifying. The record stood for 11 years. Harnett also won silver in the sprint for his second career World Championship medal.
In 1996, his final year of cycling, Harnett won his third Olympic medal, taking bronze in the men’s match sprint at the Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta.
Harnett has remained active since retiring in 1996. He has been an Olympic cycling analyst on television; volunteered with the Special Olympics and Right to Play; worked with the RBC Training Ground program to help develop Olympic athletes; and served on the board of directors for the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Cycling Association. He was also the chef de mission for Canada at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite all his accomplishments on and off the track, Harnett is perhaps best known for his hair. Leading up to the 1992 Olympic Summer Games, he and his curly blond locks were featured in a TV commercial for Pert Plus shampoo. It resulted in decades of notoriety — Harnett often describes himself as “that shampoo guy that went to the Olympics” — but he credits the commercial with getting him out of debt and encourages younger cyclists to find similar ways to market themselves and their sport. Harnett also appeared in a TV ad for Just for Men hair colour in 2014.
Curt Harnett was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Canadian Cycling Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2006, he was inducted into the Lehigh Valley Velodrome Cycling Hall of Fame, which noted Harnett’s “rock star persona and well-earned reputation as a great showman on and off the bike.” In 2018, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.