Category Archives: 1952 Helsinki Olympics

Harrison Dillard: The Man Who Won the “Wrong Event”

London Olympics, Dillard was so dominant in the high’s that in most of his races, Dillard’s opponents practically competed for 2nd place distinction. In the years immediately following the World War II, the army veteran set world record in the 120- and 220-yard hurdles races. In the U.S. Olympic trials for the London Games, misfortune hit Dillard. His streak of 82 consecutive wins in the sprint hurdles came to an end.

As a consolation, Dillard was able to eke out a third place finish at the century dash to qualify for the London Olympics. In the Olympic final, the finish was so close that it merited a review of the photo finish tapes. In fact, the more favored American, Barney Ewell, thought he had the race in the bag. Dillard had won gold in the “wrong event” – in world record time! Days later, Dillard won his second gold medal as part of the victorious American quartet in the 4x100m relay.

Four years later in Helsinki, Harrison Dillard finally topped the his favorite event.

Harrison Dillard is the epitome of the sprint hurdler. He possessed enough speed to slug it out with the best sprinters of his time and more than adequate technical prowess to lord it over the 110 high’s. Dillard won four Olympic gold medals in the 1948 and 1952 Games – double golds in the 400m relay, a 100m dash gold and 110m high hurdles gold. This is certainly a unique achievement, considering the fact that the 100m dash requires brute force, whereas the sprint hurdles is technically demanding. Other notable gold medal combos, like the 200m/400m (Michael Johnson, Marie Jose-Perec, Allyson Felix), 400m/800m (Alberto Juantorena) and the 5,000km/10,000km/Marathon (Emil Zatopek) were all relatively homogeneous.

Gail Devers had achieved a similar feat as Dillard in the 1993 Stuttgart World Championships, where she won both the 100m dash and the 100m hurdles. At the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, Devers suffered consecutive heartbreaks in the 100m hurdles (her favorite event), finishing outside the top 3. Like Dillard before her, Devers had a penchant for dead heats, with both of her two 100m dash golds requiring a second look at the photo finish cameras.

But then again, the women’s hurdles is less technically demanding the men’s race. With much lower hurdles, fleet-footed females can get away with glaring deficiencies in proper hurdling technique, whereas in the men’s race, the higher hurdles leave little room for bad form.

Say for instance, freak of nature in the mold of an  Usain Bolt/Liu Xiang 刘翔 hybrid suddenly takes center stage. A personal best of 9.58s (or better!) in the 100m dash is detrimental to the sprint hurdles. Too much speed in between hurdles, as Renaldo Nehemiah puts it, increases the likelihood of a hurdler hitting hurdles – called “crowding out.” Unless the hurdler has superhuman reflexes and flexibility, such pure sprinting power will be difficult to control.

In this day and age of specialization, the chances of someone emulating Dillard seems ever so remote.

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