Harrison DillardThought light of build … he had sublime technique and ferocious pace  —The Washington Post

Like Jesse Owens

By Roger Childs

Harrison Dillard was a gentle and humble man, and one of the greatest sprinters of all time. He passed away on 15 November aged 96. 

Harrison Dillard 1948 100m finalHe is the only man to have won the Olympics 100-metre and 110-metre hurdles titles and throw in a couple of relay victories and you have four gold medals. His hero Jesse Owens had won the same number at the Berlin Olympics and in so doing blew Hitler’s theories about white supremacy out of the water.

At the victory parade in Cleveland after the Olympics, Owens stopped to talk to Dillard and his friends. When he got home the 13-year-old lad told his mother: I just saw Jess Owens and I’m going to be just like him! 

Dillard had a lot in common with the legendary Owens: they 

  • were brought up in Cleveland 
  • went to East Tech High School  
  • trained together 
  • were outstanding African-American sprinters 
  • won four Olympic gold medals.

From humble beginnings to Olympic glory

Harrison Dillard’s parents were share-croppers who had move to Cleveland in the great migration from the South to the industrial North after World War One. His father worked on building sites and his mother was a housemaid. At an early age the boy gained the nickname Bones because of his slight build. He quickly realized that he was pretty fast over the ground and so became determined to emulate Jesse Owens. 

He served in World War Two as a member of the 92nd Infantry Division — a black unit in those days of racial segregation in the armed forces.  This interrupted his athletic career, so it was at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics that he would achieve his greatest performances. Prior to the London Olympics he had stacked up an amazing 82 wins in a row over the 100-metre and the 110-metre hurdles.

 Interesting and inspirational

His autobiography Bones, is written in a simple but highly interesting style. Dillard is humble but sincere about his achievements, and is quick to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement he was given by family, teachers, coaches and fellow athletes. 

His story is inspirational, especially for up and coming sportsmen and women because it demonstrates the value of focused training, careful preparation, confidence in your ability and determination to succeed. 

It is also fascinating to learn how Dillard strategized to beat rivals of similar ability. It doesn’t take long to run 100 metres or 110 metres over eight flights of hurdles, so he quickly realized the importance of a fast start and the value of looking at the ground rather than ahead when you come out of the blocks.

 A man of many parts

Beyond his athletic career Dillard played many roles: selling insurance, promoting the local Cleveland baseball team, as a radio commentator, newspaper columnist and 27 years as an educational administrator. He was always greatly respected for his dedication, hard work and humility. 

Bill Cosby in his Forward comments He is admirable not only for his athletic achievements, but also for his character, showing unique awareness of how the choices we make define ourselves. He faced crucial and challenging decisions and issues throughout his life and never turned away …

His wife was Jamaican and they were happily married for over 53 years. After her death he revisited Jamaica and there is a wonderful section late in his book outlining the meeting with a more recent Olympic champion: Usain Bolt.

Harrison Dillard 1His final comments in the book show the measure of the man …my athletic career will speak for itself.... and I think it is pretty good. But what’s most important to me is that I always tried my best to be a good person. And that is the achievement of which I am most proud.

(Bones is a relatively quick read with plenty of photos and I thoroughly recommend it.)