(b. 8 July 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio), Hall of Fame athlete and the only man in Olympic history to win gold medals as both a sprinter and a hurdler.
Dillard, whose father sold ice and coal door-to-door from a horse-drawn wagon, grew up in Cleveland. As skinny African-American boy of thirteen, he sat on a Cleveland curb in 1936 and watched a victory parade for Jesse Owens, who had just won four gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin; Dillard was filled with the desire to run and be an Olympic athlete like Owens. Dillard, whose nickname was "Bones," was taunted by friends saying that he was too scrawny to compete.
One key person, however, was encouraging: Owens, at an Ohio track meet, gave Dillard his Olympic running shoes and advised him to become a hurdler. Throughout his teen years Dillard and his friends used to take the seats out of abandoned cars, burn off the fabric, and use the spring frameworks as hurdles for their practice sessions. Dillard graduated from Cleveland's East Technical High School in 1941; its illustrious graduates included track and field stars Owens and Dave Albritton.
Dillard initially planned to attend Ohio State University, because Owens had gone there and Larry Snyder, Owens's coach, was still there. However, Ohio State was 140 miles from home. He eventually decided to train with Coach Eddie Finnegan at Baldwin-Wallace College in nearby Berea, Ohio.
In his first two years of college Dillard won four national collegiate titles in the high and low hurdles and fourteen Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor titles in the high and low hurdles. But he was in the U.S. military reserves while attending Baldwin-Wallace, and about a week before his sophomore year ended, Dillard's running career was interrupted when he was called to active duty. During basic training he and some friends got a three-day pass to run in the Ohio Conference championship. Dillard led his team to victory by winning both sprints, both hurdles, and the sprint relay.
While serving in Italy during World War II, Dillard was a member of a segregated troop made up entirely of African Americans, although the officers were white. They initially fought next to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was made up of young Japanese-American men. Dillard said, "I recall vividly seeing them walking through fire on the lowlands below. They were over there dying while their relatives were back home in detention camps." Dillard competed on military teams in the "GI Olympics," winning four gold medals and leading General George Patton to say, "He's the best goddamn athlete I've ever seen."
When the war ended Dillard went back to training and to college and by the spring of 1946 his talent was blooming. Before his graduation in 1949, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and AAU 120-yard and 220-yard hurdles in both 1946 and 1947. With times of 22.3 seconds in the 220 in 1946 (Salt Lake City) and 13.6 seconds in the 120 in 1948 (Kansas Relays in Lawrence), Dillard tied world records in both events.
Part of Dillard's ability to win came from his physique and his personal style. At five feet, ten inches tall and a slender 150 pounds, he did not have the power to leap over hurdles. To compensate, he "drove" over them, clearing thirteen feet total: seven feet before the hurdle and six feet after, about two feet more than other hurdlers. In 1947 and 1948 he won eighty-two consecutive hurdle events and set world records.
Before the 1948 Olympics in London, Dillard said, "I want to clean up the way Jesse Owens did in Berlin." He hit a hurdle in the final trial, however, and did not place in the final for the 110-meter hurdles. But he did qualify for the 100-meter dash. Dillard and fellow American sprinter Barney Ewell hit the finish tape together. Officials had to look at photographs of the race to determine the winner—the first time that technique, now common, was used at an Olympics. Dillard was awarded the gold. He had fittingly tied the Olympic record of 10.3 seconds set by his idol, Owens. In 1948 Dillard also won gold as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team, but despite his gold medals for the sprints, he still wanted a gold in the hurdles. Four years later, at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, he hoped he would have his chance.
In 1949 Dillard was employed by the Cleveland Indians baseball club. He wrote promotional material and made public appearances, sometimes as many as a hundred a year. But he continued to run, and the ball club kept him on the payroll while he took time off to train for the 1952 Olympic trials. Winning both the national championship and the Olympic trials, Dillard was a favorite for a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles.
In the final at Helsinki, he ran cleanly over the hurdles, while his competitor, the American John Davis, hit a hurdle toward the end and landed flatly. Dillard had the tiny lead he needed; the two reached the tape with identical times of 13.7 seconds, but Dillard was in front, winning the gold and fulfilling his promise. At the end of his track career, he was affectionately called "Old Bones" because of his age (twenty-nine).
Dillard was the first runner to win the 100-meter dash in one Olympics and the 110-meter hurdles in another. He also won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team in the 1952 Olympics, as he had in 1948, giving him a career gold medal total of four, equal to that of his hero, Owens.
Some innovations in hurdling resulted from Dillard's winning style. For example, modern sprinters look at the ground when they get on their marks; in Dillard's time, they looked straight ahead. Dillard found that this position led him to look at the sky when he took off, so he began looking at the ground so his head would be aligned straight forward when he took off. In addition, he initiated a very high action with the trailing knee, a motion now used by many hurdlers. Dillard once commented, "I've always felt that sprinters, including me, are a dime a dozen. That's just running. But when you combine running with the gymnastic ability required in the hurdles, you have a high art in track and field athletics."
Later in life Dillard worked for the Cleveland school system, wrote a column for the Cleveland Press, and worked in public relations.
Dillard won the Sullivan Award for Amateur Athlete of the Year in 1953. Over the course of his career he won two consecutive double titles in the NCAA and AAU, as well as another AAU title. He won nine indoor AAU championships, set records in the high and low hurdles, and defeated some of the best sprinters in the world. Truly, Owens had passed on his spikes to the right athlete.
Cordner Nelson, Track and Field: The Great Ones (1970), and Track's Greatest Champions (1986), have lengthy chapters on Dillard's life and career. Also see John J. Fogerty, Tales of Gold (1987), and Neil Duncanson, The Fastest Men on Earth: The 100m Olympic Champions (1988). Informative websites are <http://www.usatf.org> and <http://www.hickoksports.com>.