Harrison Dillard, who overcame racial prejudice to become the only man to achieve the Olympic double of 100m and 110m hurdles gold, and fought as a Buffalo Soldier in World War II, was honored on Friday.
Still in good health at 89 years of age, Dillard won his first gold in 1948 and the second in 1952.
Before that he formed part of the 92nd infantry, the segregated “Buffalo Soldiers,” made up solely of African-American troops, fighting in the Italian campaign from 1943-1945.
His life on and off the track was celebrated by the International Amateur Atheltics Federation (IAAF) at their centenary weekend in Barcelona on Friday.
A native and resident of Cleveland, Dillard was inspired by track great Jesse Owens, a quadruple Olympic champion at Berlin in 1936, who received a ticker-tape parade upon his return to the Ohio city.
In 1996, at the time of the Atlanta Olympics, “Long John,” a name derived from his enormous stride, had recalled the “sad conditions” of black athletes in the US, before and after World War II, regardless of their status as Olympic champions.
The four-time Olympic champion — Dillard also triumphed twice in the 4x100m relay — successfully adapted to life off the track.
“He was in charge of communications for the Cleveland Indians for 10 years. He also had a TV and radio show and he was responsible for the city’s educational department spending,” said his daughter Terri, who accompanied her father on his transatlantic voyage.
On Friday, Dillard sat amongst three hurdlers, who like him have etched their mark on the discipline with world-record times.
The 89-year-old was joined by US duo Aries Merritt — the current holder and London Olympics champion — and Renaldo Nehemiah, who ended his career at 22 to pursue a more lucrative livelihood in American football, as well as Britain’s Colin Jackson.
Happy “to have lived this adventure,” a diplomatic Dillard was reluctant to show preference to any of the hurdlers who have punctuated the heyday of the event.
He also likened the hurdles discipline to “an art” or “a ballet,” unlike the chaos of the 100m.
The gentlemanly Dillard also spared a thought for his compatriot Mal Whitfield, a double Olympic 800m champion (1948 and 1952), who was unable to travel because of poor health.
In Barcelona, Dillard was able to recount how “Marvelous Mal,” who would later become a US sports goodwill ambassador, served in the US Air Force during the Korean War.