Iconic athlete

Born: July 8, 1923;

Died: November 15, 2019

HARRISON Dillard, who has died aged 96, was an iconic American athlete, the only man ever to win both the Olympic 100m sprint and 110m hurdles which he achieved in consecutive Games in 1948 in London and 1952 in Helsinki.

In doing so he equalled the Olympic record in the sprint while relegating Glasgow-born Scot Alastair McCorquodale to fourth place and set an Olympic record over the hurdles. He also won gold medals on both occasions in the American sprint relay team, bringing his tally to four.

Ironically, Dillard had only entered the sprint in 1948 after failing to qualify in the hurdles event which was his true speciality. He won countless American national and collegiate titles and prior to the 1948 Olympic trials was unbeaten in 82 consecutive races, a record which stood till Ed Moses surpassed it in the 1980s.

In 1983 Dillard was one of the first athletes to be inducted into the inaugural U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame alongside his idol and fellow Cleveland native, Jesse Owens.

He competed three times in Glasgow, at the Rangers Sports at Ibrox in 1947 and at the Glasgow Police Sports at Hampden in 1949 and ’50. These were high profile meetings, regularly attracting world class athletes as well as huge crowds, sometimes in excess of 70,000. On each occasion he won the hurdles event, setting a Scottish All Comers’ record in 1949 with the Scots Athlete magazine describing his 1950 success as “magnificent for its sheer speed and hurdling grace.”

William Harrison Dillard, nicknamed ‘Bones’ because of his spare frame was born in Cleveland, Ohio where he lived all his life. He was one of four children of William and Tarah who had been sharecroppers in Alabama before moving to Cleveland where his father worked as a labourer in construction and his mother was a housemaid. Although his athletic ability derived from his father, he credited her as the biggest factor in his success for the sacrifices she made for him.

After Owens’ success in the Berlin Olympics, Dillard and some friends watched his celebratory homecoming parade in Cleveland and were delighted when he acknowledged them. Thereafter Dillard was determined to emulate his hero and in 1941 when he was a student at East Tech High School, which Owens had also attended, Owens gifted him a pair of spikes which Dillard proudly wore to win the State championship.

His athletic progress was interrupted by war during which he served for almost three years mostly in Italy including seven continuous months of combat duty as a ‘sharpshooter’ in the African American 92nd Infantry Division, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’. He later commented, "We were proud of being an all African American outfit and succeeding at what we needed to do. Every day I knew might be my last.”

At the end of the war he won four events in the “G.I. Olympics” in Frankfurt causing General Patton to exclaim, “That’s the best goddamned athlete I ever saw.”

His exemplary service did not however grant him immunity from racism, and he recalled how he was once refused service in a restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. "It makes you kind of cuss under your breath,” he said.

In 1946 and ’47 when an economics student at Wallace-Baldwin College near Cleveland he won the national and collegiate hurdles titles and looked a certainty not only to compete in the event at the London Olympics but to win it, having also set a world record at it.

To qualify for the American team required a first three finish in their Olympic Trials when for Dillard the unthinkable happened as he hit several barriers leaving him unable to finish. His only option to secure a place at the Games was in the 100m and although an accomplished sprinter he was not considered among the very best. In the trial he scraped third place behind world record holders Mel Patton and Barney Ewell to qualify for London where expectations were low.

Despite that he was determined to do well and repeatedly practised his starting technique on the ship on the trip across. His American teammates were favourites but Dillard ran a tremendous final to pip Ewell on the line in a photo finish to claim gold and equal Owens’ Olympic record.

The hurdles crown remained the one he really wanted and four years later in Helsinki aged 29 he claimed it in an Olympic record-breaking time to complete the unique double of titles, later explaining, "This is the one I wanted, much more than the 100m. Sprinters are a dime a dozen but hurdling is the high art of track.”

In 1956 he married Joy Clemetson, a Jamaican international softball player, with whom he enjoyed a long marriage of over 50 years and had a daughter Terri.

Once his athletics career finished he had a number of jobs including public relations for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, business manager of the Cleveland Education Board, and sports broadcaster for local television and radio. He is survived by his daughter and three grandchildren.