Harrison Dillard, U.S. track luminary who won four Olympic gold medals, dies at 96 (2023)

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Kelyn Soong,The Washington Post

When Harrison Dillard lined up at the 1948 U.S. Olympic Trials in Evanston, Illinois, he had hoped to follow in the speedy footsteps of his Cleveland hometown idol, track-and-field star Jesse Owens, whose prowess at the 1936 Games in Berlin brought him four Olympic gold medals and a lifetime of athletic renown.

Dillard - nicknamed "Bones," for his slight build - had been a standout track star in college, and his participation in the post-World War II "G.I. Olympics" in Germany after his Army service had left Gen. George S. Patton in awe. "He's the best g--damned athlete I've ever seen," the legendary commander told the newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Although an excellent sprinter, Dillard had already set world records in hurdling in the mid-1940s, and that discipline, he thought, held the most promise for him to imitate the groundbreaking path of Owens. But he lost his stride in the 110-meter hurdle race that day in Evanston, striking several hurdles and failing to complete what he considered his showcase event.

Instead, Dillard would go on to represent his country in the 100-meter sprint at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, after qualifying for the race by finishing third in the trials. He had often discounted the event, thinking he was too slow. But in a photo-finish upset, he won Olympic gold. He also ran a leg as a member of the gold medal-winning 400-meter relay team.

Four years later, while competing in the Games in Helsinki, he won gold in the 110-meter hurdles, becoming the only man to win Olympic gold as a sprinter and hurdler, a triumph that led him to match Owens for wins.

Dillard, 96, one of the most dominant runners of his generation who was a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the oldest-living U.S. Olympic champion, died Nov. 15 in a Cleveland hospital. The cause was stomach cancer, his friend Ted Theodore told The Associated Press.

The 1948 Olympics marked the first time the Games had been held since the prewar Berlin Games of 1936. Dillard arrived in London as an underdog in the 100-meter race. Teammates Barney Ewell, who had equaled the world record at 10.2 seconds during the Olympic Trials, and race favorite Mel Patton both had faster qualifying times. Another top contender was Panama's Lloyd La Beach.

All four won their qualifying heats, easing through to the finals.

Running from the outermost lane on the rain-soaked track, Dillard led from the very first stride and felt the tape hit his chest. But in his peripheral vision, he also saw Ewell lean forward at the same time. Ewell started to jump up and down, clasping his hands in apparent victory.

After a few tense minutes, it was clear that Dillard was the champion when officials looked at race photographs, the first time the technology was used to determine the winner. The crowd of 80,000 roared when Dillard's name was shown on the scoreboard as the victor.

Dillard's winning time of 10.3 seconds equaled Owens's Olympic-record time from a dozen years earlier.

"I could finally say that I was just like him," Dillard wrote in his 2012 autobiography, "Bones."

During the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, Dillard finally won the race he was expected to dominate - the 110-meter hurdles in an Olympic-record time of 13.7 seconds. He added another gold that year as a member of the 400-meter relay.

"He is in the upper echelon of track and field accomplishments, that is for sure," former Olympic sprinter John Carlos told the Undefeated, a sports website, in 2016. "His being able to win the 100-meter dash in London when he was more of a hurdler is incredible. And to do so when the games came back to London after the war, with the whole world looking at the Olympics that year as symbolic rebirth, is an achievement he should be better known for."

William Harrison Dillard was born in Cleveland on July 8, 1923. His father sold ice and coal door-to-door from a horse-drawn wagon, and his mother was a housemaid.

Throughout his teenage years in Cleveland, Dillard and his friends took the seats out of abandoned cars and raced up and down the streets, using the spring frameworks as "hurdles" to mimic Owens, who grew up in the same neighborhood.

In summer 1936, Dillard, then 13, stood curbside with his friends to watch a victory parade for Owens, whose four golds in Berlin brought embarrassment to Adolf Hitler and his master Aryan race ideology.

Dillard positioned himself close enough that he could touch Owens' car. As Owens passed by, he gave Dillard and the boys from the neighborhood a wave and winked at them. Filled with excitement, Dillard sprinted home, determined to be just like him.

Dillard connected with Owens again in 1941 while preparing for the state championships his senior year at Cleveland's East Technical High School, which Owens also attended. While chatting, Owens noticed that Dillard's spikes looked a little worn. He gave Dillard a new pair of shoes.

"I won the state championship in those shoes," Dillard told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012.

Dillard competed at Baldwin-Wallace College in nearby Berea, Ohio, becoming the first person in his family to attend college. As a sophomore, he helped the team win the Ohio Athletic Conference championship for first time. But just as his trajectory as an athlete seemed assured, he was drafted into the Army during World War II for service in the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

After the war ended in 1945, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Dillard competed in a "G.I. Olympics" in Germany and won four events - the 200-meter dash, high and low hurdles and a sprint relay.

Dillard returned to college and won 82 consecutive races between 1946 and 1948, the longest winning streak in the history of major track competition until 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses broke it in the 1980s. Dillard held several world records, including in the 220-yard low hurdles - an event no longer seen in competition. In April 1948, he set a world record in the 120-yard high hurdles, with a time of 13.6 seconds.

"For him to come back from the war and be better than he was before was amazing, but I saw firsthand that it came from him working harder than anyone else, every day," Ted Theodore, a freshman teammate of Dillard at Baldwin-Wallace, told the Undefeated. "He didn't get his success by just being athletically better than everyone else. He outworked everybody."

After his military discharge, Dillard recalled, he was once refused food in a restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. "You kind of cuss under your breath," Dillard told the New York Daily News in 2012. "You know it's not right, but you also know there's nothing you could do about it."

He thought that racial discrimination may have played a role in his being denied the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, given to the country's top amateur athlete, until 1955, when he was nearing retirement.

He was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. The organization's annual honor for the country's top male hurdler is called the Harrison Dillard Award. In 1983, Dillard was among the U.S. Olympians who were inducted into the inaugural U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame alongside Owens, the leading vote-getter.

He was married to Joy Clemetson, an accomplished softball player on the Jamaican national team, from 1956 until her death in 2009. He had a daughter, but a complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

From 1949 to 1958, he worked for the Cleveland Indians, writing promotional material and making public appearances for the baseball team. Later in life, Dillard sold life insurance, worked as a Cleveland radio program director and on-air personality, and wrote a sports column for the now-defunct Cleveland Press. In the 1980s, he was a sprinting instructor for the New York Yankees during spring training. He also spent 27 years as a business manager in the Cleveland public school system, as his public profile grew dimmer. The Undefeated called him "the forgotten fastest man."

In his memoir, Dillard spoke of hurdling as a metaphor for the gritty determination that defined his ambition as a child growing up in Cleveland.

"The other kids didn't have the willingness, and they knew that the event was called 'hurdles' for a reason," Dillard wrote. "They knew they'd most likely hit them, trip over them, crash to the track over them, and get scratched, get scarred and bleed. They weren't willing to do that. I, however, was."


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