Harrison Dillard (left) and Herb Douglas have been friends for over seven decades.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Olympic Games in London. It also, perhaps, highlights one of the oldest Olympic friendships of two athletes that competed there: that of Herb Douglas and Harrison Dillard.
At 96, Douglas is the oldest African-American Olympic medalist, having won a bronze medal at the 1948 Games in the long jump. Dillard, the oldest African-American Olympic gold medalist, will celebrate his 95th birthday in July – at a party coordinated in part by Douglas.
Though they met at the 1942 AAU Track and Field Championships, the experience of competing in London 70 years ago ties them together more than any other milestone.
The 1948 Olympic Games were the first held after the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of four editions of the Games between 1940 and 1944.
Because of the economic hardships that befell much of Europe after the war, 1948 came to be known as the Austerity Games, which was reflected in the usage of existing venues and the bare-bones athletes’ quarters that required athletes to bring their own towels.
Still, the stark backdrop of the Games didn’t dull the shine of Douglas and Dillard’s performances. Notably, Dillard won his first Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters, a race where he wasn’t favored – and one where Barney Ewell, his competitor, thought he had crossed the finish line first.
“I thought I had won, because I felt the tape strike my chest and my arm. [Ewell] thought he had won, so he began to jump up and down in a victory celebration. I was declared the winner, in spite of Barney Ewell’s celebration,” Dillard said. “Of course, with all of us being good friends at this time, Barney was the first to congratulate me on winning.”
What Dillard remembers most, though, is being on the podium.
“Before we were presented with our medals, we faced the scoreboard at the end of the stadium and they played the national anthem,” Dillard said. “Standing on that victory stand and then hearing the national anthem played was quite an impressive thing, and I can remember it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”
Douglas jokes that his goal was to compete in London and stand on the podium – but not necessarily to win gold like his friend.
“Since I was very young, I always prayed that I’d make the Olympic Team. And a sports psychologist said, ‘You wanted to make the Olympic Team, but you didn’t want to win a gold medal.’ And I never did think of that,” Douglas said. “I dreamed of standing on the podium and winning a medal, but never winning gold.”
Another tie that binds Dillard and Douglas is their admiration of Jesse Owens, who went to the same Cleveland high school as Dillard and earned a record-breaking four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Games, the last to commence before the war. Owens was in the stands during the 100-meter race that Dillard won.
“Later on in the locker room, he, too, congratulated me,” Dillard said. “He said, ‘I’m happy for you. I thought you could do it.’”
When Owens passed away in 1980, Douglas – who had since received his master’s degree in education and moved onto the corporate world, working first for Pabst Brewing Company and then for Schieffelin & Co. (now Moët Hennessy USA) – established the Jesse Owens International Athlete Trophy and the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace to honor his friend.
The awards are presented annually at the Jesse Owens Gala, which brings together business leaders and Olympians from around the world for a celebration of amateur sport. Douglas attends every year, and Dillard has joined him as often as he can.
“Over the years, I had a lot of events in the corporate world, and he never failed to show up to any I had,” Douglas said. “He supported me all the time. When I would get a little sad, he evidently would pick up on it, and he would say, ‘Herb, you can do it. If you’re gonna do that, it’ll be good.’”
The pair will see each other next in Cleveland for Dillard’s 95th birthday celebration. Dillard calls Douglas his “closest Olympic friend” and says they’ve talked on the phone every few weeks for over 70 years.
In turn, Douglas has nothing but glowing things to say of Dillard.
“When you get old, in your 90s, there are only a few people you can put on one hand where you can say, that man’s been an honorable person most of his life,” Douglas said. “Harrison Dillard is one.”