LONDON – The oldest 100-meter Olympic champion is back in London for the games – only this time as a celebrated athlete, not a scrawny kid from Cleveland who botched the hurdles only to win the gold in 1948.
Harrison Dillard, 89, was honored Wednesday at Britain’s Foreign Office where the 1948 torch from those London games in on display.
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“It’s heavy!” the man, also known as ‘Bones’ because of his lanky youthful appearance, said as he held the silver torch.
As a world record holder, all eyes were on Dillard in 1948 to win the 110-meter hurdles. But when the day came, the American knocked down several hurdles and failed to finish the race.
He tried again in the 100-meter dash, winning in 10.3 seconds – a surprise to his teammate and favorite Barney Ewell, who did a premature victory dance thinking he had actually won.
Four years after London, Dillard went on to win the 100-meter hurdles in Helsinki.
“That’s one of the beauties of the Olympic Games, that they occur every four years,” Dillard told The Associated Press. “The athlete who fails in the first, assuming that he can maintain the necessary physical ability plus the emotional and mental ability, has a chance to redeem him or herself. I certainly had that good fortune.”
Oldest Olympic 100-Meter Champ Honored In London
The 1948 games were the first time that Olympic judges had the benefit of using photo finish technology, which helps the naked eye in determining who crossed the finish line first.
Dillard, who now lives in the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights, said today’s athletes such as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt have benefited from advances in technology, equipment, medical knowledge and nutrition.
“He’s much bigger, stronger and much faster, of course, on the clock, but that’s not true only of Usain but all the athletes who are competing today,” Dillard said.
What’s the trick?
“Evolution,” Dillard laughed.
A lot has changed in Dillard’s life since he competed in the 1948 London games, held as Britain and the world struggled to recover from World War II.
“In my day, it was purely amateur. You represented your country, period,” he said. “They are now able to make it a profession.”
But London itself has also changed, said Dillard, who went on to work for the Cleveland Indians.
“It’s such a big city, almost monstrous,” he said of London. “Not like Cleveland, unfortunately, being an industrial city that has lost half its population and many of its industries.”
Dillard was inspired by another track and field athlete from Cleveland – Jesse Owens – who won four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
When asked what event he was most looking forward to this week, Dillard said it wasn’t the 100-meter dash.
“It’s my family getting here,” he said. “It’s the first time my daughter and three grandkids have ever been to London. It’s going to be a special time.”