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26 Jul 1952

Hurdles no obstacle as Dillard wins gold again

Harrison Dillard had been hurdling since he was a boy, when he had sprinted down alleys, using used car parts as barriers. He was inspired by another famous American sprinter, the legendary Jesse Owens, who became his mentor, giving him a pair of spikes that he had used during the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

By 1952, Dillard had become an established star in his own right, albeit one who faced a curious situation as he arrived in Helsinki. He was the reigning champion in the blue riband 100m, but had a stronger pedigree in the 110m hurdles.

Four years earlier, in the build-up to London 1948, Dillard had been strongly tipped for Olympic glory in the hurdles, but after falling at the US trials he failed to win a place in the team for his favourite event. Instead, he focused his explosive sprinting power on the 100m, and went on to win gold. For most athletes, that would have been the pinnacle of a career; Dillard, though, felt he still had something to prove to himself.

The 110m hurdles remained his first love, and in a bid to maximise his chances of glory, he even passed up the chance to defend his 100m title. His decision paid off with a place in the final, where his closest competition seemed certain to come from two other Americans – Jack Davis and Art Barnard.

On the eve of the final, Davis had been offered the use of a sweatshirt that had been used by his three room-mates. Each had gone on to win gold, but Davis decided against taking up the offer. Perhaps, looking back, he could have done with a sprinkling of good luck.

Davis made a poor start. Dillard took advantage and surged into an early lead. Davis reeled him in, but then glanced the ninth hurdle. The two Americans actually crossed the line in the same time – 13.7secs – but it was Dillard who was awarded victory in the photo finish.

Dillard jumped for joy while Davis was left to rue his decision to reject the sweatshirt. “I can't help thinking that if I'd worn it, I'd have won gold,” he later mused.

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