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Historical Vignette: The inspired Harrison 'Bones' Dillard

17 May 2006

In 1928 Charley Paddock, the American who won the 100 metres sprint at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, was on a lecture tour in the United States. He was encouraging young people to follow their dreams. After delivering his speech at a Cleveland high school, a young African-American student approached him stating that he too would like to become an Olympic champion.

With Paddock’s encouragement, that young lad proceeded to pursue his Olympic dream which culminated eight years later in Berlin, with his winning of four gold medals.

The wide-eyed boy of 1928 had become the star or the 1936 Olympics – his name was Jesse Owens. Owens returned home to his native Cleveland to a triumphant round of welcome-home festivities.

During a motorcade, another young African-American caught his eye and Owens acknowledged him. That young boy was so excited by the experience that he ran home as fast as his spindly legs could carry him, bursting through the door to proclaim that he had just seen Jesse Owens and was going to become an Olympic champion like him. That little boy was Harrison Dillard, nicknamed 'Bones' because of his skinny build.

By 1941, Dillard’s athletic career as a hurdler and sprinter was burgeoning and it was then that Owens presented him with a new pair of running spikes. The following seven years, to just before the 1948 Olympics, saw Dillard complete his secondary education, serve in World War II, run up a winning streak of 82 races in hurdling and sprinting and become a multi-world record holder.

In short, by that stage Dillard seemed to have a mortgage on the gold medal for the 110 metres hurdles in London in a few months’ time. By the final US Olympic trials Dillard, who had experienced a couple of close defeats in the lead-up meets, was still the hottest of favourites to cruise through to the Olympic team in his specialty event.

Early in the trials he finished third, just, in the 100 metres sprint and, as a result, qualified to run in that event in London as well as becoming a member of the 4 x 100 metres relay squad. The final trial for the 110 metres hurdles came around and Dillard had a shocking race, knocking hurdle after hurdle until eventually pulling out of the race – his dream of becoming an Olympic champion as a hurdler was dashed.

In London Dillard did become an Olympic champion, twice over. In an enormous upset, he won the 100 metres sprint, his non-preferred event, and ran the final bend in the winning relay team.

Dillard continued on to the 1952 Olympics, this time qualifying to run in the 110 metres hurdles and again being a member of the relay squad. He chose not to try to qualify to defend his sprint crown. At Helsinki Dillard eventually became the Olympic champion in his favourite event and won another relay gold medal, bringing his Olympic medal haul to four – all gold, just like his hero, Jesse Owens.

Bruce Coe
Olympic Historian