Glenn Davis, only athlete to win successive Golds in 400m hurdles | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Glenn Davis, only athlete to win successive Golds in 400m hurdles

26 June, 2022
Glenn Davis on his way to Gold sweep of 400m Hurdles medals in 1956
Glenn Davis on his way to Gold sweep of 400m Hurdles medals in 1956

Glenn Ashby Davis was an American Olympic hurdler and sprinter, who became the only athlete to win successive Olympic gold medals in 400m Hurdles. He won at Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960. He also established two world records clocking 49.5 sec on June 29, 1956 in Los Angeles and 49.2 sec on August 6, 1958 at Budapest.

Davis was a member of the 4x400m Relay team of the United States that won the gold at Rome 1960 Olympic Games clocking a world record of 3:02.37 on September 8, 1960 along with Jack Yerman, Earl Young and Otis Davis.

Three other athletes have won two Olympic golds in 400m Hurdles, but at non-consecutive Olympics. They are Felix Sanchez of Dominican Republic (Athens 2004 and London 2012), Angelo Taylor of the United States (Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008) and Edwin Moses of the United States (Montreal 1976 and Los Angeles 1984).

Davis, 6-foot and 73 kilograms nicknamed “Jeep,” went on to win three Olympic golds and earned a place in the United States Olympic ‘Hall of Fame.’ He turned what were then known as the “Low Hurdles” into a glamour event, and was arguably one of the greatest hurdlers.

At his peak, he was a celebrity as any professional sportsman. In 1958, he was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award as the America’s top amateur athlete. His coach Larry Snyder, who also had coached Jesse Owens, once said that Davis was possibly a greater talent than Jesse Owens.

Childhood and Career

Glenn Ashby Davis was born September 12, 1934 in Wellsburg, West Virginia, the youngest of 10 children. His father was an ironworker and keen baseball fan, but his son’s first love was basketball. Having told by a youth team coach that he would “never be a good athlete”, Davis was so driven that he became the first freshman to start on his high school’s basketball team.

The family moved to Marietta, Ohio, where Davis joined Marietta High School, blossomed into an allround sports star, running track at school and playing baseball in the summer. He practised his hurdling year-round, leaping over borrowed sawhorses in the alley behind his house.

Both his parents died on successive days But when he was 15, and he went to live with an older brother in Barberton. He had already been nicknamed “Jeep” after a comic-strip character; as his fame grew, the nickname was a useful way of differentiating him from another Glenn Davis, the 1940s Army gridiron star.

Davis singlehandedly led his team, ‘Barberton Magics’ to the 1954 state high-school track and field championship, scoring all 20 of Barberton’s points. Davis won the 220y dash, the broad jump and the 180y Low Hurdles, setting a then-state record in that event.

He was an all-state gridiron player, but when the Barberton Magics won, he was offered more than 200 athletic scholarships for college. Davis chose Ohio State, following in the footsteps of Jesse Owens. Davis ran his first Intermediate Hurdles race in April 1956, which he won in 54.4 sec.

American track events were still measured in yards, so Davis had never run 400m Hurdles before the 1956 US Olympic trials, where he became the first man to run under 50 sec, setting a world record at 49.5 sec. In Melbourne 1956 Olympics, he won 400m Hurdles comfortably with an Olympic record of 50.1 sec.

Davis was an eight-time Big Ten champion. In 1956, he won the Big Ten title in the 220y Low Hurdles and captured the 70y low hurdle title in 1957. In 1958 he was placed first in the 70y High Hurdles, 60y dash, 440y run and the mile relay. In 1959, he claimed two more Big Ten titles in the 440y dash and the mile relay once again.

Davis was an NCAA champion at the 1958 NCAA Championships. At the 1958 Big Ten Conference championship he won both the Hurdles and the 440y flat race, where he set a world record of 45.8 sec.

He won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 400m/440y Hurdles four times and, on the flat, twice broke the world record for the open 440y; his best mark came at the 1958 NCAA where, representing Ohio State, he ran 45.7 sec.

In 1958, Davis set his second world record in the 400m Low Hurdles. He still holds Ohio State records for the outdoor 50y Hurdles (6.1 sec) and the second-fastest times in the outdoor 400m Hurdles (49.2) and the indoor 300y dash (30.5 sec). Davis was a letter-winner for the Buckeyes from 1956-59.

He also set two more world records in the 400m/440y Hurdles, leaving them at 49.2 sec and 49.9 sec respectively as well as running a 22.5 sec world record for the 200m Hurdles immediately prior to the 1960 Olympics. That summer, he joined an American team touring the European summer circuit, where he won nine of his ten races.

In the Rome 1960 Olympics, Davis won 400m Hurdles in 49.3, just off his world mark. He won his third Olympic gold medal in the 4x400m relay. On his return, he turned down an offer of $125,000 to endorse a brand of cigarettes, then joined the NFL’s Detroit Lions.

400m Hurdles at Melbourne 1956

Davis was still relatively inexperienced at the 400m Hurdles when he travelled to Melbourne for 1956 Olympics. He had just started competing in the event the previous school year at Ohio State, setting blistering times, including a world record of 49.5 sec at the U. S. Olympic Trials. In Melbourne, Davis tied an Olympic record with a 50.1 sec run to capture the gold medal.

The men’s 400m Hurdles competition at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, took place on November 23-24 at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. There were 28 competitors from 18 nations. The maximum number of athletes per nation had been set at 3 since the 1930 Olympic Congress. Romania made its debut in the event. The United States made its eleventh appearance, the only nation to have competed at every edition of the event to that point.

Two of the six finalists from the 1952 Games returned: silver medalist Yuriy Lituyev and fourth-place finisher Anatoliy Yulin, both of the Soviet Union. Earlier in the year, at the U. S. trials, American Glenn Davis had demolished Lituyev’s three year old world record, knocking almost a full second off the mark and taking the time under 50 sec for the first time ever.

During the Final, the six lanes were fairly even, with Lituyev pushing the backstretch to gain a slight advantage going in to the final turn. That was swallowed up during the turn as Davis surged, leading Eddie Southern and Gert Potgieter off the turn. Davis expanded his lead over Southern from 2 meters to 5 meters down the home stretch for the win.

Over the final barrier, Potgieter caught his trail leg on the hurdle which knocked him off balance. He was able to take two more strides then did a face plant in the middle of the track. On the inside, Josh Culbreath was able to cruise by for bronze, completing the American sweep. Prior to the competition, the world record of 49.5 sec belonged to Glenn Davis of the USA whilst the Olympic record of 50.8 sec was to the credit of Charles Moore (USA) at Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games.

The victory by Glenn Davis of the United States was the nation’s fourth consecutive and ninth overall victory in the men’s 400m Hurdles. Eddie Southern (silver) and Josh Culbreath (bronze) completed the American sweep, the third time (after 1904 and 1920) that the United States had swept the medals in the event. Glenn Davis clocked 51.3 sec in the Quarter Final, 50.7 in the Semi Final.

The Olympic Medallists: Gold - Glenn Davis, United States 50.1 sec (Olympic Record); Silver - Eddie Southern, United States 50.8 sec; Bronzze - Josh Culbreath United States 51.6 sec.

400m Hurdles at Rome 1960

The only athlete out of the six finalists from the 1956 Games who returned to Rome 1960 was the gold medalist Glenn Davis. He was favored to repeat. He had lowered his own world record to 49.2 sec in 1958 and taken four of the last five AAU titles (not competing in the 1959 event). The men’s 400m Hurdles event at the 1960 Olympic Games took place between August 31-September 2. There were 34 competitors from 23 nations.

This was the twelfth time the event was held. It had been introduced along with the men’s 200m Hurdles in 1900, with the 200m being dropped after 1904 and the 400m being held through 1908 before being left off the 1912 programme. However, when the Olympic Games returned in 1920 after World War I, the men’s 400m Hurdles was back and would continue to be contested at every Games thereafter.

Iraq, Kenya, Morocco, Norway and Tunisia each made their debut in the event; East and West Germany competed together as the United Team of Germany for the first time. The United States made its twelfth appearance, the only nation to have competed at every edition of the event to that point.

The competition used the three-round format used every Games since 1908 (except the four-round competition in 1952): Quarter Finals, Semi Finals, and a Final. Ten sets of hurdles were set on the course. The hurdles were 3 feet (91.5 centimetres) tall and were placed 35 metres apart beginning 45 metres from the starting line, resulting in a 40 metres home stretch after the last hurdle. The 400m track was standard.

A significant change, however, was the introduction of the “fastest loser” system. Previously, advancement depended solely on the runners’ place in their heat. The 1960 competition added advancement places to the fastest runners across the heats in the Quarter Finals who did not advance based on place.

The event was won by Glenn Davis of the United States, the first man to successfully defend an Olympic title in the 400m Hurdles. Davis remains the only man to do so. It was the United States’ fifth consecutive and tenth overall victory in the event. The Americans also completed their second consecutive (and fourth overall) medal sweep in the event.

Four runners went under 50 sec (hand-timed) in the Final, the first time any had done so in the Olympic Games. He clocked 52.41 sec in Quarter Final 2 and 51.20 sec in Semi Final. At the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, Glenn Davis broke his Olympic record, established in Melbourne 1956, taking the gold medal in 49.3 sec.

The Olympic Medallists: Gold - Glenn Davis, United States 49.3 sec (Olympic Record); Silver - Cliff Cushman, United States 49.6 sec; Bronzze - Dick Howard, United States 49.7 sec.

Post 1960 Olympic Career

Given all he had accomplished, Davis had one regret. He participated in many different events throughout his track career, but never gave it a go in the decathlon, even though he regularly trained with the standout Rafer Johnson, who took silver medal in the Melbourne 1956 decathlon and gold medal in Rome 1960.

“I know I would have won,” Davis said in an interview in 2000, ever confident in himself. “I used to compete with Rafer in practice and beat him.” Davis was featured on the June 27, 1960 cover of Sports Illustrated.

Shortly after the Olympic Games, Glenn Davis, a multi-talented sportsman, had a brief career in professional American football for the Detroit Lions playing a wide receiver in 1960 and 1961. He had 10 catches for 132 yards in his two NFL seasons, but in the years between Olympic Games he had shown himself to be one of the great track talents of all time.

After injuries curtailed his 1961 season he retired. He was the track coach at Cornell University from 1963 to 1967. After winning the Ivy League title for the in 1967, he returned to his adopted city of Barberton, Ohio, where Davis spent most of his life teaching and coaching for 33 years. Initially, he was a part owner of one of the students’ favorite gathering spots, Jeep and Joe’s Pizza. Later, he was the owner and operator of Jeep’s Olympic Driving School. He also loved to play the harmonica.

In 2006, he was recognized as the greatest athlete in Summit County history. He died at the Hospice Care Center in Barbarton, Ohio on January 28, 2009. He was 74 and left behind his wife of 52 years, Delores “Dee”; his sons, Glenn A. Jr. (Linda Vargo) and Timothy (Kelly) Davis; daughter, Jennifer Davis; grandchildren, Stephanie, Rebecca, Caleb, Rylee, Gavin and Lauren; great-grandson Trent; sisters, Evelyn and Lucy.

Davis was either at or close to world records in many events including: 100y/m (9.6/10.3), 200m (21.0), the half mile (1:52), 120y High Hurdles (14.0), 200m Low Hurdles on curve (22.5 World Record), 400m Intermediate Hurdles (49.2 World Record), High Jump (6-8), and Long Jump (24-8) during his career.

A Lasting Legacy

In the hot, dry summer of 1952, Barberton, Ohio, revealed itself to an orphaned boy as a tough, honest city; a show-me place where the wary citizenry gave no quarter to outsiders. Instead, you had to prove yourself to fit in, to be accepted. No excuses allowed. If you were young enough, the right place to start was on Barberton’ s playing fields. Sports were the one constant that kept the city together.

Tradition was rich, going back to the days of the great George Sisler, now enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Yet the only true game in town was football. And the paragon of hard-nosed Barberton football was the legendary “Jumpin” Joe Williams, a kid so tough that in the 1930s with his big toe broken early in a game he single-handedly whipped undefeated and unscored upon Massillon High School.

Just the right place for a 15-year, red-headed, raw-boned transplant from the coal country along the Ohio River to start his life anew. But first Glenn “Jeep” Davis, arriving with an embittered heart, forced to live with a brother 19 years his senior; had to beat back a demon that threatened to ruin his life and crush his one hope for salvation - the dream of Olympic glory.

In 1999, the people of Barberton raised money and erected a statue of Davis in full flight clearing a hurdle in the centre of town. But his greatest memorial may be the record he still holds at Ohio State, for the 50y High Hurdles. As the race is no longer contested, it should last forever.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])