Harrison Dillard Is More Than An Olympic Legend
Seventy years ago, a young man from Cleveland stood atop a podium in London as the national anthem played.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" echoed throughout Wembley Stadium because that young man had just won one of his two gold medals representing the United States in the 1948 Olympic Games.
But there is so much more to the story of Harrison Dillard.
In a photo finish, Harrison Dillard, far left, wins the 100 meter dash, finishing one-tenth of a second ahead of U.S. teammate Barney Ewell in the 1948 Olympic Games. [Image Courtesy of: National Media Museum/Wikimedia Commons]
“I was there because I had a dream since I was 13 years old,” said Dillard.
Dillard grew up in Cleveland – like many young boys of the day, idolizing two larger-than-life African American sports stars: Boxer Joe Louis and Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens.
But Owens was more than a star on screen or a name in the headlines. He was from the neighborhood – from East Tech, the same high school Dillard would attend.
Dillard set track records in high school, then won the NCAA and AAU 120-yard and 220-yard hurdles in both 1946 and 1947, matching world records of the time.
Harrison Dillard as a student athlete at Baldwin Wallace University. [Image Courtesy of: Baldwin Wallace University]
And he would become the only Olympic athlete in history to win gold in both the sprints and hurdles. He medaled twice in London -- and twice more in Helsinki four years later
But you know that – or you should. So let’s skip back to that moment 70 years ago – standing on the podium in London – and hearing "The Star Spangled Banner:"
“I remember vividly when we were presented the gold medal,” said Dillard, as he relaxed on the deck of his home in Richmond Heights. “I stood on that stand, and they played the National Anthem, and the flag was slowly raised. I said ‘Wow, I’m standing just where Jesse stood a dozen years before.’ There’s nothing like it.”
Harrison Dillard's two gold medals from the 1948 Olympics in London. He keeps them packed away in a shoe box. [Image: Mary Fecteau/Ideastream]
But for Dillard, a veteran of World War II, the moment had even greater significance.
“Having been a soldier not too many years before, and especially the fact that I was a grunt, I was in the 92nd Infantry – a foot soldier. All of those things came rushing back as I stood there and watched that flag go up,” said Dillard.
Dillard’s famed 92nd Infantry Division was an all-black unit – sometimes called the Buffalo Soldiers – that is often credited with helping turn the tide in Italy.
The men of the 92nd Infantry made up the only black unit to see combat in Europe -- even though more than 900 thousand African Americans served in the Army during during World War II. But their service didn’t shield them from racism within the still-segregated U.S. military.
All these years later, Dillard still recalls an incident in Italy toward the end of the war. As he and his fellow soldiers pursued retreating German troops, their all-black battalion entered a small, mountain village, expecting the same hearty welcome it had received in other towns along their route. But this time, they were met with silence.
“When we went through, all the windows were covered over, the drapes were pulled, and we didn’t see the people. So we wondered,” said Dillard.
They found their answer when one of the American soldiers, who spoke Italian, questioned some of the villagers. “They said that they had been told that the black soldiers would mistreat the women and the children,” said Dillard. And the locals had been told this by other American soldiers.
“At the same time, we’re fighting right next to each other,” said Dillard.
Dillard is one of the last remaining heroes of 92nd Infantry. Even if “hero” isn’t a title he’s entirely comfortable with.
“When you can put it in context, and think of the things that happened, and what some people view as a hero, it makes more sense, but when you’re going through it, boy, all you want to do is get it over with,” Dillard said with a laugh.
That humility is evident by what you see in his home. Prominent are the Olympic torches he later carried – to support others. One he ran with in Cleveland, as the flame went to Los Angeles in 1984; the other he carried commemorating the Salt Lake City games in 2002.
There are proclamations from mayors and there are a few trophies – including his favorite, from the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Hall of Fame.
What you don’t see displayed are the Olympic gold medals from 66 and 70 years ago. His most noted achievements were boxed and put away. He finds the interest in something he did so long ago a bit surprising, but chalks it up to the significance of the Olympic Games.
Harrison Dillard sits at his kitchen table, wearing his gold medal from 1948. He's flanked by cards and gifts from his recent birthday celebration. At 95, he's the oldest living Olympic gold medalist in the world.
Since his time in the athletic spotlight, Dillard has witnessed a change – an emphasis on things greater than just running fast and jumping high. From Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality, to LeBron James donning a hoodie in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, athletes are now speaking up.
“I commend them," Dillard said. "In time, they’ll be looked upon as heroes.”
As he is looked up to now.
Baldwin Wallace University still hosts the Harrison Dillard Indoor City Track Championships, his statue stands on the campus where he achieved his first national notoriety – before and after his military service.
His life of service continued after his athletic career. Following graduation, he eventually found his way to the Cleveland schools – where he was a vital part of the administration for 27 years and loved the work.
He still loves track and field too. He’s impressed by the record-breaking speeds of runners such as Usain Bolt, but he also can’t help but wonder.
“What would happen if I could compete under the same conditions, how much better I could have been,” Dillard said. “Obviously I could have been better, we all could have been better, but with the advances in medicine and knowledge, running techniques. The human race gets better as time goes – and these guys are evidence of it.”
He adds with a laugh: “I still watch, and I say ‘Wow, that guy can run.’”