Olympic Champion, Coach and Teacher

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:

"Going into the homestretch, Helmut Janz of Germany and [U.S. hurdler Dick] Howard were ahead. Davis, in third position and running easily, made his move and took the lead approaching the last hurdle. He drew away after going over the final barrier and won by some six feet."

Glenn Ashby Davis was born Sept. 12, 1934, in Wellsburg, W.Va., and was the ninth of 10 children. He grew up in poverty and was nicknamed "Jeep" after a character in Popeye cartoons.

After Mr. Davis's parents died on consecutive days when he was 15, he moved in with relatives in Barberton.

He single-handedly won the state track championship for his high school in 1954, taking first place in the long jump, 220-yard dash and 180-yard low hurdles and fourth place in the 100-yard dash -- all with one arm strapped to his side because of a separated shoulder.

"People can't believe that I ran so many events in a meet, but I loafed through half of them," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993. "I just ran to win, not for time."

He was offered 200 athletic scholarships but chose to attend Ohio State, where his coach was Larry Snyder, who trained the legendary Jesse Owens in the 1930s.

Mr. Davis made no money from his exploits in track and field, because the athletes' amateur standing was strictly enforced in those days. In 1960, he turned down an offer of $125,000 to advertise cigarettes because he believed it would set a bad example for children.

He was not yet 26 when he retired from track after the 1960 Olympics. He played two years as a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions of the National Football League, then became the track coach at Cornell University from 1963 to 1967. He then returned to Barberton, where he coached and taught driver's education and shop until the early 1990s.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Delores Davis of Barberton; three children; two sisters; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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