Harrison Dillard led a life that few could imagine, from serving as a sharpshooter in the last racially segregated unit in the U.S. Army in World War II to winning four Olympic gold medals in track and field.
The 96-year-old’s remarkable journey came to an end on Friday after a battle with stomach cancer. He died at the Cleveland Clinic after a weeklong hospitalization.
Dillard was the oldest living U.S. Olympic gold medalist, and last year celebrated his 95th birthday at his home near Cleveland, Ohio, with a number of fellow Olympians including longtime friend and 1948 teammate Herb Douglas, Hayes Jones, Herman Frazier, Edwin Moses, Ted Wheeler and Cindy Stinger.
Dillard was a Buffalo Soldier who served in the 92nd Infantry Division and saw time in Europe before the war was over. Three years after the war ended, Dillard journeyed back across the Atlantic Ocean for a much different purpose.
Inspired by fellow Cleveland native and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens to take up track and field, Dillard was a standout athlete by the time of the 1948 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. He held the world record in the 110-meter hurdles yet surprisingly missed the cut for the Olympic team in that event. He did make the team in the 100-meter, however, claiming a spot on the 4x100-meter team as well.
He won gold in both events at the Olympic Games that year, with the 100-meter being determined by use of photo finish for the first time in Olympic competition to crown him the world’s fastest man. (Read TeamUSA.org's "London Recalling" feature on Dillard from 2012.)
In 1952 he returned to the Games in Helsinki, this time as a hurdler and again in the 4x100. He won two more gold medals, and to this day is the only man in Olympic history to win gold in both the 100-meter and the 110-meter hurdles. That brought his total number of gold medals to four, same as Owens.
After his Olympic career, Dillard worked in both scouting and public relations for the Cleveland Indians and as business manager in the Cleveland City School District. Dillard is a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.