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Olympic legend Harrison Dillard: "Jesse Owens was my idol.. and a good friend"

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August 9, 2012
Usain Bolt has taken one more step toward fulfilling his dreams of becoming a legend having successfully defended his 100 metres gold Olympic title. And with his secondary event of the 200m still to come, he could make yet another mark in sporting history by the week’s end.
Talking of sporting history, however, the last man to win a 100m gold at an Olympics in London, all the way back in 1948, was an American runner named Harrison Dillard.
And during this special summer of athletics, Laureus.com were lucky enough to talk to the man himself.
In a fun and often fascinating interview, Dillard tells us about racing on post-war bomb rubble, the state of London then and now, and his friendship with sporting hero Jesse Owens.
 
Question: Could you cast your mind back to the last time you were in London for the Olympic Games?
Harrison Dillard:
Even though it’s been 64 years, the memories are still very vivid and prominent.  Obviously the fact that I was able to win the gold makes it I suppose even easier to remember.  And I recall that it was the first time that they’d used the photo electrical timing system.  And I won the race actually by a foot, I guess, over my team-mate and country man Barney Ewell.  It was a great pleasure and obviously something I will never ever forget.
It was very different then. For a start you were running on a cinder track?
They told us that the track used here in London in 1948 was made out of bomb rubble and it was red, which would say maybe it did come from red brick.  But yes, that was long before the tartan tracks came along with any colour you want.
The 1948 Games were very different to the 2012 Games.  It was just after the Second World War and London had stepped in to put the Games on.  What are your memories?
Well they were still the Olympic Games, that was really the most important thing, and all that the Olympic Games mean.  But there was no Olympic Village per se.  We lived in Uxbridge and we stayed in barracks that had been used by the Royal Air Force during World War Two.
Were the competitors aware that this was the start of a new generation, a new era after the war?
I am sure they were, after all it was the first Games since 1936 when Jesse Owens destroyed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.  So we were well aware of that and the fact that these were the first Games following 1936 was also very special to us.
Was Jesse Owens a role model for you when you were young?
We grew up in the same city, Cleveland, Ohio.  As a matter fact we attended the same high school.  Of course he was ten years older. Jesse was my idol and I told my mother I wanted to be just like him and she was sure that I would be.  And Jesse and I got to be good friends in later years. He was a gentleman in every respect.  Very kind and giving and considerate.  I think he loved children.  Loved to do things that would benefit and help children grow up and advance.
You won the 100 metres and a sprint relay gold in London. What did you do to celebrate?
We left immediately on a tour.  I think we went to Paris, if I’m not mistaken.  Of course I continued competing and four years later I was able to win in Helsinki and won the 110 metre hurdles, which I was supposed to win in 1948.  And again I ran on a winning 4 x 100 metres relay team.
Was it normal then for people to compete in the flat 100 and the hurdles?
No. I was the exception rather than the rule.
You ultimately ended with four gold medals. How was that received in 1948 and 1952? Were you celebrated everywhere you went in the world after that?
I don’t know, because I didn’t go all over the world, but I did quite a bit of competition in Europe in particular.  But no, we were not treated as world heroes.  The television and the media was not developed to the extent that it is now.
What are your impressions of an Olympic Games held in the 21st century?
Well I turned 89 years of age in July. People ask what’s the secret to longevity.  I said just keep breathing, that’s what I do. I don’t know what the Games hold in the future. I’m sure that they will continue to develop and the athletes will continue to get bigger and faster and stronger.