The forgotten fastest man remembered
Harrison Dillard died last Friday (Nov 15) in his native Ohio and most people never knew who he was. I have to confess that I was one of them.
Dillard was probably just a small, minor footnote to history in these Instagram-Facebook times if you take his life at face value, but go below the surface and there’s a bit more there.
He was an Olympic track-and-field star in the days before Usain Bolt, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Edwin Moses. Dillard was also the only runner to win gold medals in both the sprints and high hurdles. Among African-American Olympians, Dillard’s four gold’s – won in 1948 and ‘52 – are second only to Carl Lewis’ nine. Until his passing a week ago, at age 96, he was the oldest living U.S. Olympic champion.
Dillard also won the Sullivan Award back in 1955 which is bestowed on the nation’s top amateur athlete; joining the likes of golfer Bobby Jones, Bill Walton, and Peyton Manning.
“(His death) is a loss for humanity,” his longtime friend and former high school and college teammate Ted Theodore told a Cleveland newspaper. “He was an example for all of us, how to live our lives, with never an unkind word for anyone. He was a champion, a true champion.”
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, East Technical High in Cleveland. Dillard grew up idolizing Owens, even telling his mother, after seeing Owens in a parade for Olympians, that Owens was who he wanted to be like: the Lebron James of his day.
Dillard attended Baldwin Wallace College near Cleveland, but his studies and athletic career were interrupted by World War II. He became a sharpshooter in the last racially segregated unit in the U.S. Army: the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division. Ironically, Dillard would return to Europe a few years later for the Olympics.
After enduring the physical and mental wear and tear of combat, Dillard went back to college in 1946 and won 82 straight races in the hurdles. It was the longest winning streak in track and field history until Edwin Moses broke it in the 1980s.
In the 1948 London Games, Dillard won the 100 meters in 10.3 seconds (Bolt’s record: 9.63), and earned another gold medal on the United States’ 4 x 100 relay team. At Helsinki, Finland in 1952, Dillard won his specialty, the 110 high hurdles, and again ran on the winning relay team. He tried a third time for the 1956 Games, but didn’t make the team. Overall, Dillard was four for four in the Olympics, undefeated at the highest level of his sport.
All told, Dillard won 11 indoor and outdoor national championships. He held world hurdles records at 60 yards indoors, and 110 yards and 220 yards outdoors. He won more than 400 races, including the aforementioned 82 in a row at one point.
In 1974, he was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 1983 became a charter inductee into the U.S. Olympic Committee Hall of Fame.
After college and his international track career were over, Dillard became just as proficient in the working world: he sold life insurance, worked as a program director for a Cleveland radio station, and wrote a sports column for the Cleveland Press newspaper in the 1970s. He also spent more than 25 years as the Cleveland public schools’ chief financial officer, overseeing a budget of more than $60 million.
“I was attracted to sports because whether I won or lost was decided by the stopwatch,” he once said. “It was either ‘I am better than you,’ or, ‘you are better than me,’ nothing else.”
“I always tried to just win the next race and be better than I was in the previous races. Was I a hero? To tell you the truth, that really has never entered my mind because that has never been who I am,” he concluded.
Rest in peace, Mr. Dillard, that stopwatch you follow can now stop ticking.
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7211.