The forgotten fastest man
Harrison Dillard, winner of four Olympic golds, was one of the best runners of his generation
Sitting down with Harrison Dillard at the dining room table in his house on a cul-de-sac in a Cleveland suburb, nothing tells you that this guy is one of the greatest American track athletes in Olympic history. His four gold medals are packed away in a closet. Indeed, nothing out in the open – no pictures, trophies, or framed newspaper clippings – acknowledges his remarkable history.
It’s not because he’s shy or indulging in fake humility. “I always saw sports as a way to better myself through education and I worked hard to do that,” the 93-year-old says matter-of-factly.
But start digging and you realize the man across the table is a special American. He is the only Olympic athlete in history to win golds in both the sprints and hurdles. Among African-American Olympians, his four gold medals – won in 1948 and 1952 – are second only to Carl Lewis’ nine. He won the AAU Sullivan Award in 1955 as the most outstanding amateur U.S. athlete, an honor that’s also gone to golfer Bobby Jones, basketball star Bill Walton, swimmer Mark Spitz and quarterback Peyton Manning.
His victory in the 100-meter dash in London in 1948 was determined using a photo finish, the first time that had ever been used at the Olympics. He won 82 straight hurdles events in 1947 and 1948, and was the AAU 60-yard indoors hurdles champion seven straight years from 1947 to 1953.
Dillard was a star, but he doesn’t appear to be too impressed with his achievements. There is one memory that he relishes, though. After the Germans surrendered in 1945, the U.S. military decided to hold a GI olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. Dillard, who had served with the all-black buffalo soldiers, had to get on a plane from Italy to compete (it was the first time he ever flew, and he describes the experience as “being scared s—less”), and Gen. George S. Patton was there to oversee the competition. Dillard recalled winning four events – the 200-meter dash, high and low hurdles, and as part of a relay team.
The military newspaper Stars and Stripes asked Patton what he thought of Pfc. Harrison Dillard. “He’s the best god damned athlete I’ve ever seen,” the general replied.
Amazingly, Dillard wasn’t the first runner from his neighborhood to win Olympic gold. Jesse Owens, Dillard’s boyhood idol and the winner of four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Games, had gone to the same high school.
In telling the story of the link between Olympic gold medalists, Dillard usually starts with the parade in Cleveland in 1936, where Owens waved to the 13-year-old Harrison from the big car and gave the boys from the neighborhood a wink. Dillard went home that day and told his mother he was going to be just like the man who won four golds in Berlin and had basically given the finger to Hitler and his belief in an Aryan master race.
But there’s an earlier memory that demonstrates their shared roots and how young boys idolize sports heroes. In 1933, Owens was a senior at East Technical High School in Cleveland and had tied the world record in the 100-yard dash and set a record in the 220. Word was spreading among the neighborhood kids that he was the “chosen one,” the LeBron James of his day.
There was an indoor meet at East Tech on a late winter day in 1933, and 9-year-old Harrison and his friends all wanted to get a peek at the neighborhood guy who was the best of the best. The gym was tiny, the “squirrel cage” as the East Tech track guys called it, with a track that required 20 laps to finish a mile. Dillard and his friends had already started pretending they were track stars like Owens, racing up and down the streets and putting junked car seats they found in alleys on the sidewalks so they could run the “hurdles.”
“Wiggling and squirming our way through the crowd, we got in the position where we could see the youth who was going to become our idol,” Dillard wrote in the Cleveland Press in 1980 after Owens died. “He was preparing for an attempt at the high jump. He was lean and lithe, with skin the color of coffee with cream. I watched wide-eyed as he glided up to the bar, leaped and slid over it easily in the effortless manner that has never been equaled to this day.”
Three years later, Owens would be winning in Berlin. And 12 years after that, that little wide-eyed 9-year-old would be grown up and winning the first of his four gold medals. So in that little gym on that day in 1933, there were eight future gold medals. But the older boy displaying his skills became well known, while the little boy watching his hero did not.
Dillard knows why and is perfectly fine with it. “Are athletes heroes?” he asked. “Really, is running fast or jumping higher or throwing a ball through a hoop all that important? I could make the case that doctors and teachers and great economists and political leaders can be heroes because much of what they do has a direct impact on people’s lives. I don’t know if I can say I was a hero under those guidelines.
“But Jesse Owens was a hero, because he performed his athletic feats in circumstances where they were important, by throwing the lie of Aryan supremacy right in Hitler’s face and right in his house,” Dillard said. “Jesse knew that he was representing a way of thinking, of freedom and equality, and he knew he had to perform at those 1936 games to back that up. And he did.”
After 1936, when Owens won the 100 meters, the Olympics were not held again until 1948, when Dillard won the 100 meters. So the world’s fastest men from the years preceding and after the war were from the same high school in Cleveland.
It has been a springtime of joy and sadness for Dillard this year. In May, his 103-year-old sister, Ophelia, died, making him the last survivor of the four Dillard siblings. The next week, his granddaughter, Izmailia, graduated from high school as the valedictorian of her class. “Izzy being the valedictorian is about as proud as I’ve ever been, including winning the gold medals,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I’ve always been very proud of how smart she is, but now everyone else knows that, too.” As a sidelight, his granddaughter was also one of the star athletes at Richmond Heights High School, playing on the basketball and volleyball teams, and was a high jumper, too.
He lives with his only daughter, Terri, and Izzy, and gets around fairly well for his age (no cane). He stopped jogging about five years ago, and said, “The only difference over the years is that I get tired more easily now.” There was a scare last year when he collapsed after a ceremony to unveil a statue of him at Baldwin Wallace College, his alma mater, but it was later attributed to not eating and drinking enough on an unseasonably warm spring day.
His parents were Alabama sharecroppers who moved to Cleveland just before he was born in 1923, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North. His dad worked as a construction laborer, and his mother as a housemaid. He had rickets as a kid, and didn’t start walking until he was 18 months old. He was so skinny – only 50 pounds at age 10 – that the kids nicknamed him “Bones,” a name that follows him to this day.
He gravitated to track and field and started making a name for himself. He won state championships in the 100-yard dash and high hurdles, and got a scholarship to Baldwin Wallace in suburban Cleveland in 1941. He was a meticulous trainer and hard worker, putting quarters and matchbooks on the hurdles and trying to knock them off without touching the hurdle. He was also very much still “Bones,” 5-foot-10 and 157 pounds.
His athletic career and studies as an economics major were interrupted by World War II, as Dillard was drafted into the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, known as the buffalo soldiers. In 1944, the buffalo soldiers landed in Italy with the job of pushing the Italian and German troops north and off the peninsula. Dillard served seven straight months of combat duty. “I learned about survival and hatred,” he said. “Every day I knew might be my last. But I also knew we were fighting for our country and for freedom and we were proud of being an all African-American outfit and succeeding at what we needed to do.”
America’s race issues followed them to Italy. As the buffalo soldiers headed into one Italian town, after white American soldiers had already come through, the locals had told them they heard the “soldati neri” (black soldiers) were “cattivo” (evil). The American white soldiers “had told them we would steal from them, rape and carry away their women, things like that,” he wrote in his 2012 autobiography, Bones. “That’s why they were drawing their shades and blinds: to hide from the black soldiers entering the town. God only knows what we would do, they thought.”
The most amazing part of Dillard’s athletic career came next. After serving for such a long period in combat – and enduring the physical and mental wear and tear that comes with it – he went back to his college team in 1946 and won 82 straight finals races in the hurdles. It was the longest winning streak in track and field history until 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses broke it in the 1980s.
Ted Theodore, 87, an East Tech grad who was a freshman on the Baldwin Wallace team in 1946, said Dillard’s domination was incredible. “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,” he said. “He didn’t get his success by just being athletically better than everyone else. He outworked everybody.”
Dillard went to the Olympic trials in 1948 as the world record holder in the 120-yard hurdles (the track world hadn’t converted completely to metric measurements yet). But during the trials final in his premier event, the unthinkable happened: He cleared the first hurdle and then hit every one after that before he gave up before the finish. Luckily, he had qualified the day before as the No. 3 finisher in the 100 meters.
If there was ever an underdog in the 100 meters, it was Dillard. He had barely qualified and it wasn’t his best event. Even a bronze medal would have been considered an upset.
But Dillard won gold. He did it despite running in the inside sixth lane, which is closest to the stands and always a tough place to win from. Most observers thought fellow American Barney Ewell had won (he celebrated at the finish as if he did). But when officials examined the photo finish (the technology was primarily used in horse racing at the time), Dillard was clearly the winner. His time was 10.3, equaling the Olympic record Owens had tied at the last games 12 years earlier.
He then ran the third leg on the 4×100 relay to secure his second gold. “At the time, I was just thinking I did what Jesse did and was so very proud to hear the national anthem on the podium, caught up in it all. But as I think back now, having looked back at it all these years, it was quite an accomplishment,” Dillard said. “I felt devastated after not qualifying in the hurdles, but I could only do what I could do. And that was to win the 100.”
There were no parades like there had been for Owens when Dillard came home to Cleveland. “They basically gave me a ‘Nice going, boy, now get a job’ pat on the back,” he said. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck gave him a job handling team publicity and allowed him time to train for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
This time Dillard, now 29 and old for such an event, won the 110-meter high hurdles in a time of 13.7, besting fellow Americans Jack Davis and Art Barnard, who finished second and third. Dillard took his fourth gold running the second leg in the 4×100 relay, as the team finished in 40.1, besting the second-place Soviet Union, which was making its first Olympic appearance as a country.
Dillard was four for four in the Olympics, undefeated at the highest level of his sport.
“He is in the upper echelon of track and field accomplishments, that is for sure,” said John Carlos, bronze medalist in 200 meters in the 1968 games in Mexico City and known for the black power salute he did with gold medalist Tommie Smith on the medals stand. “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.
“As a sprinter and Olympic medalist, I know how tough it is to get to the medal stand once, but to come back four years later is almost impossible,” he said. “Back then, there was no money for you, especially for a black athlete, you had to work and eat, had to survive,” Carlos said. “So when I think about Harrison Dillard, I think about all that hard work to come back and do it again in 1952. His hard work was his achievement.”
Dillard tried a third time in 1956, but didn’t make the team. With his athletic career now over, he achieved off the track in many different ways. He had graduated from Baldwin Wallace in 1949 with a degree in economics. He married Joy, a native of Jamaica, in 1956, and their marriage lasted more than 50 years until her death in 2009. He sold life insurance, worked as a program director for a radio station in Cleveland, wrote a sports column for the Cleveland Press in the 1970s, and then spent more than 25 years as the Cleveland public schools business office manager, overseeing a budget of more than $60 million.
When great athletes who served in World War II are listed, baseball greats such as Bob Feller and Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg always get mentioned. But Dillard? Not so often.
And that brings up the big question: Is Dillard not remembered as one of the top Olympic athletes in U.S. history because of race? Because his gold medals were earned such a long time ago? Perhaps it’s because he followed such a high-profile star in Jesse Owens? Or maybe because he never really promoted himself or championed civil rights more publicly?
The answer, of course, is all of the above.
“The presumption to this day is that the black athlete achieves based upon natural talent, and what that does is devalue hard work and discipline that athletes like Harrison Dillard so obviously showed,” said Harry Edwards, a professor of sociology at San Jose State University who has written extensively about race and sports.
“So the whites never thought much of his achievement and that’s why he was not even honored much immediately after he won the medals,” said Edwards. “But the black community wants their athletic heroes to be ones that have interfaced with the struggles of black people outside of athletics. That’s why Jack Johnson is a hero, and Jackie Robinson is, and Jim Brown and Jesse Owens are. It’s not what they did, it is what they left.
“Athletes like Harrison Dillard fall through the cracks in that regard,” Edwards said.
If Dillard was a white athlete who won four gold medals, his accomplishments likely would be getting more attention before the XXXI Olympiad begins in Rio de Janeiro in August. He would be honored for his achievements and character, his perseverance and work ethic, both on and off the track.
But that is not how the world works, and Dillard knows it. “I had been attracted to sports because whether I won or lost was decided by the stopwatch on the track,” he said. “It was either ‘I am better than you,’ or ‘You are better than me.’ Nothing else.
“That’s what I always tried to do, win the next race and be better than I was in the previous races. And once again, you have been asking me if I was a hero, and to tell you the truth, that really has never entered my mind. Because that has never been who I am.”
He went to the London Olympics as a special guest in 2012, but won’t be going to Rio because age and travel do not go well together anymore. He will be watching, though, particularly sprinter Usain Bolt from Jamaica. His wife’s Jamaican heritage helped put him in touch with Bolt through the years, and they talk occasionally.
Is Bolt the best sprinter ever, better than Owens or any of the others? He looks at me and laughs as if I have asked the stupidest question of all time. “The question isn’t even relevant,” he said. “Jesse and I both ran 10.3s at the Olympics. I think Bolt ran a 9.6 in London. Yes, Bolt is the best ever. Until someone else beats that time.”
Dillard smiles again. There’s nothing complicated here. He worked hard and succeeded. Did what he was supposed to do, and no need to send special honors his way. The honors should go to the high school valedictorian who lives with him. That makes more sense. That’s what grandfathers know.