BY KAREN ROSEN

Harrison Dillard at the London 1948 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Olympic.org.

On the eve of the 1948 U.S. Olympic Trials, anyone predicting Harrison Dillard would win a gold medal at the London Games would have been right. They probably would have picked the wrong event, though.

As the world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, Dillard simply needed to place in the top three at the Trials to make the U.S. team.

“You would think,” Dillard said 64 years later, “that would be almost like a gimme. But not so -- that’s part of the appeal of athletics. Anything can happen.”

His timing uncharacteristically off in the final, Dillard hit the first hurdle, cleared the second, then “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, I just hit a string of them,” he said.

Failing to finish the race, Dillard’s shock was tempered by relief. “As it turned out, luckily I was already on the team,” he recalled with a laugh.

The night before, Dillard had qualified third in the 100-meter dash. And with no hurdles in his way, he immediately set his sights on winning the premier sprint at the London Olympic Games.

“I thought that I had a chance because the watch doesn’t lie,” said Dillard, nicknamed “Bones” because he had been such a scrawny kid growing up in Cleveland. “In practice when I ran time trials, my coach clocked me, and said ‘You’re running just as fast as these guys that are winning all these national races.’ ”

Dillard was far from the favorite, however. His teammates were Barney Ewell, the veteran 1936 Olympic silver medalist who won the Trials in the world record time of 10.2 seconds, and Mel Patton, who held the world record at 100 yards (9.3). Also in the race was UCLA sprinter Lloyd LaBeach, the only athlete competing in the Games from Panama.

London 1948 - Harrison Dillard finished 1st in the 100m. Photo courtesy of Olympic.org.

With only six finalists at the time in the Olympics 100, Dillard drew the unpopular Lane 6, which was closest to the stands. Runners in Lane 6 feared they would be overlooked by the finish-line judges, but there was no need to worry. For the first time at the Olympic Games, there was a photoelectrical timing system supplied by Omega.

After one false start, “Fate was with me,” Dillard said. “The gun went off and I got a perfect start. I was one of leaders out of the blocks.”

By the halfway point, he had built a small lead, maybe a yard.

“I knew that all of them were very capable of coming from behind and winning a race,” Dillard said. “So my job was to try to maintain some part of that lead that I had, and without tying up. I was able to do that. When I got down and saw the finish line, I put my chest out.”

At the same time, through his peripheral vision, Dillard saw another white jersey several lanes away. That turned out to be Ewell, who was also leaning at the tape.

“I hit it, and I felt it strike my chest,” Dillard said, “but at the same time, being cotton yarn, the darn thing will stretch. It might stretch up to 18 inches, two feet before it actually pops.”

The tape broke, and Ewell assumed he had won because he had beaten Patton and LaBeach, who had run on either side of him.

“He goes into his victory dance, jumping up and down and clasping his hands over his head and celebrating, “ Dillard said. “And Lloyd LaBeach, who was to Barney’s right in the next lane, said, ‘No mon, you don’t win. Bones win.’”

London 1948 - Harrrison Dillard took 1st place in the 4x100m. Photo courtesy of Olympic.org.

Dillard thought he’d won, too, but everyone had to wait for the official announcement. “Maybe it takes two minutes, but it seems like forever,” he said.

According to Omega timing and its official photo, Dillard was the champion, equaling the Olympic record of 10.3 seconds. Ewell and LaBeach were both clocked at 10.4.

Ewell, who was Dillard’s roommate in London as well as his teammate, congratulated him. “We were good friends, so there was no animosity,” Dillard said. “You beat a guy, you beat him. But you’re still friends off the track.”

With the victory, Dillard became the first 100-meter champion to come from the same high school as the previous champion. He followed none other than Jesse Owens, who also attended Cleveland’s East Technical High School.

Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games before World War II cancelled the next two Games, was in the stands at Wembley Stadium to see Dillard win. Standing on the victory podium, Dillard said, “was the realization of a dream that I’d had since childhood, keeping in mind the fact that my idol Jesse Owens had won the last 100 meters.

“When you stand up there, it just gives you goosebumps. You see that flag going up and you hear the national anthem played and you say, ‘Wow, that’s all on account of me.” It’s a very special feeling.”

Long before he became “The Fastest Man in the World,” Dillard was the fastest kid in the alley. He and his pals would burn the fabric off old car seats that had been dumped there and use them as hurdles. Even then, when he was 8 years old, Dillard could beat the older kids.

When Dillard was 13 or 14, he first met Owens. The legendary sprinter was spending time at the recreation center near the school and Dillard’s coach introduced him to his team. Several years later, Dillard, then a high school senior, and Owens went head-to-head in a 120-yard low hurdles race as an exhibition.

“Of course, he beat me, but I had the privilege and pleasure of saying I had run against my idol,” Dillard said.

There’s an oft-repeated story that Owens gave Dillard his first pair of track shoes, but Dillard said that’s a myth.

“He did give me a brand new pair of shoes; that part of it is true,” Dillard said, “but I had worn out any number of pairs of shoes by that time.”

It actually happened at the state high school championships in Columbus, Ohio, where Owens then lived.

“He saw that my shoes were a little worn, I guess, and thought I could use a new pair,” Dillard said. “So he went back into the locker room, and he came back with a brand new pair of shoes and he gave them to me. We did wear the same size shoe at the time.”

Before he could follow in Owens’ footsteps at the Olympics, though, Dillard spent 32 months in the Army during World War II. He was a Private First Class in the Mediterranean Theater in Italy with the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black division with Caucasian senior officers.

After the war ended, Dillard was waiting to be shipped home when the Army announced it was looking for soldiers who wanted to go out for football, basketball, track and field or baseball. He naturally signed up, and went to Frankfurt, Germany, to compete in a Fifth Army meet where Gen. George S. Patton was in attendance.

Reporters from “Stars and Stripes” asked the general, a 1912 Olympian in modern pentathlon, what he thought of the PFC from down in the Mediterranean Theater who had won three or four events. Patton replied, “The Best Goddamn Athlete I’ve ever seen.”

When Dillard got to London for the Olympic Games, there were still signs of the war, including bomb rubble. “As a matter of fact, they told us, true or not, that the composition of the track at Wembley Stadium contained bomb rubble,” he said. “It had been ground to a powder and mixed in with the clay and the sand. All I know is the track did have a reddish color to it, which would make you think that could be true; it could be brick.”

Besides winning the 100, Dillard won another gold medal as a member of the 4 x 100-meter relay. The United States won by four or five meters, but was initially disqualified for exchanging the baton outside the zone on the first exchange between Ewell and Lorenzo Wright. Dillard ran the third leg and Melvin Patton was the anchor.

“The judge who was watching the exchange apparently got confused,” Dillard said.

Ewell told U.S. coach, Dean Cromwell that it was a legal exchange. A protest was lodged and film backed up Ewell’s contention. However, the relay team members didn’t receive their medals until the following day and there was no awards ceremony for them.

Four years later, Dillard tried out for the Olympic team again, but only in his first love: the hurdles. And, in a true measure of his resiliency and perseverance, in Helsinki he finally became the Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles.

“I elected not to attempt to defend my championship in the 100 meters, because, first of all, we had 100 meter runners,” Dillard said. “It was tough enough in 1948 and (I thought) I don’t need to put up with that against this group of guys, who we felt were plenty good enough to win it.”

By that time, Dillard also was 29 years old, “which we thought was getting a little long in the tooth back in those days, nowadays it’s not,” he said. “There was no point in trying to have to run all these multiple heats. I would just concentrate on the 110-meter hurdles, which I did, and was able to qualify for the Olympic team.”

The United States finished in a sweep, with Dillard first, Jack Davis second and Arthur Barnard third. Dillard and Davis were both clocked in the Olympic-record time of 13.7 seconds.

“That was like I redeemed myself,” Dillard said. “I had proven that I was still the best 110-meter hurdler in the world.”

Davis hit the ninth hurdle, but Dillard said he would have won anyway. “I had found out just through experience that any time I came off the last hurdle in first place, nobody ever caught me in that little 12 yard run-off to the tape,” he said.

After all, Dillard was the 100-meter Olympic champ.

He was again selected to run a leg on the 4 x 100 meter relay -- which is unusual for a hurdler -- and won his fourth gold medal.

In 1956, Dillard got to the Olympic Trials final in the 110 hurdles, but said, “I no longer had it. As I remember, the only athlete I beat in that race was Rafer Johnson, who of course turned out to be the Olympic decathlon champion (in 1960).”

In those days, Olympic medals were handed to the athletes in boxes instead of placed around their necks on ribbons. Dillard’s wife, Joy, who passed away 2 ½ years ago, had a jeweler put a chain on one of the gold medals so she could wear it. As proof that it touched -- and was touched -- by many people, “It looks as much silver as gold nowadays,” Dillard said.

Away from the track, he joined the Cleveland Indians baseball organization in 1949 in public relations. He also worked in radio and TV and wrote a weekly newspaper column for 10-12 years for the now-defunct Cleveland Press.

Dillard, 88, who still lives in a Cleveland suburb, carried the Olympic flame in the 1984 and 2002 torch relay and will keep the fire burning by going to London this summer.

He’ll be a guest of the Omega watch company, which is still the official timekeeper for the Olympic Games. That makes perfect sense since Dillard is still the company’s first example of a photo finish deciding a close race.

And he’s also living proof that if you can’t make it to the Olympic Games in your best event, all is not lost.

“Yeah,” Dillard said, “You win something else.”

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.