Three-Time Olympic Gold Medalist Glenn Davis Dies at 74

Glenn Davis, right, shown at the Penn Relays in 1956, won three Olympic gold medals and set world records in sprint and hurdle events.
Glenn Davis, right, shown at the Penn Relays in 1956, won three Olympic gold medals and set world records in sprint and hurdle events. (Associated Press File Photo)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Glenn Davis, 74, a versatile track-and-field star of the 1950s and early '60s who set world records in sprint and hurdle events and won three Olympic gold medals, died Jan. 28 at Summa Barberton Hospital in Barberton, Ohio. He had pulmonary fibrosis.

Mr. Davis won the 400-meter hurdles in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games and claimed a third gold medal as a member of the world-record-setting U.S. 1,600-meter relay team in 1960.

He set or equaled five individual world records, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and in 1958 won the James E. Sullivan Award as the country's top amateur athlete. He was occasionally confused with Heisman Trophy-winning football player Glenn Davis, who starred for Army in the 1940s and died in 2005. They sometimes received each other's mail but, according to the track athlete's family, the two never met.

Mr. Davis showed exceptional range for a runner, competing in both flat races and hurdle events at distances from 50 to 600 yards. He also competed in the long jump and high jump.

"He was as fit as any athlete that I've ever worked with," 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2000. "We trained together between 1956 and 1960. I was always in search of him to work with because he was such a great athlete."

Johnson and Mr. Davis were the first black and white athletes to be roommates on a U.S. Olympic team. In later years, Mr. Davis said he wished he had trained for the grueling 10-event decathlon, whose winner is often called "the world's greatest athlete."

"That's my biggest regret," he said in 2000. "I know I would have won. I used to compete with Rafer in practice and beat him."

While at Ohio State University, Mr. Davis won 26 Big Ten titles and was a four-time NCAA champion. In 1956, he took up the 400-meter hurdles to prepare for the Olympic Games in Melbourne. In less than three months, he set a world record of 49.5 seconds, the first time anyone had run the event in less than 50 seconds.

In 1958, Mr. Davis set world records in the 400-meter hurdles (49.2 seconds), 440-yard hurdles (49.9) and 440-yard dash (45.7). He tied the mark for the 200-meter hurdles (22.5) in 1960. In a series of international meets against top athletes from Eastern Europe in 1958, he won nine of 10 races in a span of 14 days.

All of Mr. Davis's outdoor records were set on dirt and cinder tracks -- which he likened to "rope rolled out on the ground." None of them was broken until the rough cinder surface was replaced by rubberized composite material.

The 6-foot-tall Mr. Davis had a smooth, elegant stride and cleared his hurdles by a mere inch or two. At the 1960 Olympics, he was at a disadvantage in the far outside lane, where he could not see his competitors, but came from behind to win the gold medal with a time of 49.3 seconds.

A New York Times reporter described his winning performance:

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company