American runners who brought touch of 1948 Olympics to Borders

Olympic Heroes:  Barney Ewell
Olympic Heroes: Barney Ewell
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Mark Entwistle looks at how US athletes Craig Dixon, left, and Barney Ewell link this region with the last London Games

FORMER world champion hurdler Craig Dixon is not a household name in the Borders, but he is another athlete who links this region with the Olympics.

Olympic Heroes: Craig Dixon

Olympic Heroes: Craig Dixon

Dixon, who was in the American track and field team for the 1948 Games in London, has strong connections with the Borders.

His mother emigrated with her family from Eyemouth in the early 1900s and met Dixon’s father in Vancouver, before settling in Los Angeles, and there is a family connection with the Borders fishing town to this day with the Dixon family.

At the 1948 Games, Dixon took the bronze medal in the 110metres hurdles.

He lost out on the Olympic title by just a foot-and-a-half. After his events, Dixon visited his relatives in Eyemouth with a colleague from the US team.

The Berwickshire News of August 17 that year documented this visit. In an interview many years after the event, Dixon described his visit to Scotland: “We went to Edinburgh. They wanted some Olympic athletes up there, so I volunteered.

“We left before the closing ceremonies.

“We ran in Glasgow at a soccer meet. We were the half-time entertainment. There were 100,000 people in the stands, and of the 100,000, only 20 were sitting. All the rest were standing up leaning against the bar.

“I couldn’t believe this. They put these hurdles up in the grass in the middle of the stadium, and it was bumpy with holes in the ground. We just ran a short race of five hurdles. I think we had a high jumper and a discus thrower.”

Dixon believed that ambition should be seen as unlimited. He was overjoyed to make the Olympic team by placing second in the Olympic trials and defeating the legendary Harrison Dillard in the 110metres high hurdles at the American Athletics Union meeting in 1949.

He always said his greatest joy was leading the 110metres hurdles final at the London Games for eight hurdles and that his greatest disappointment was then to lose the race by so little to two other men.

Dixon’s favourite food was marmalade and bacon sandwiches, which was a popular dish in Los Angeles, but unheard of in a small fishing town like Eyemouth.

Another American athlete who featured in the 1948 Games and has a fascinating Borders connection is Barney Ewell.

Ewell, who died in 1996, won a gold and two silver medals at London and spent the summer of 1950 competing on the Borders games circuit.

The Jedburgh Gazette of July 14, 1950, tells the story of Ewell’s victory in the Jed Border Games sprint, one of the most important events on the circuit.

Ewell also participated in a special invitation race at the famous Powderhall venue. It was held in August, 1950, as a celebration of his time in Scotland.

It seemed that Scotland loved Ewell and, in turn, the American athlete developed a close and positive relationship with the Scots during his stay.

Ewell grew up in poverty, and went on to become one of the greatest sprinters of the 1940s. His old high school – John Piersol McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – honoured Ewell’s lifetime achievements by naming its stadium after him.

Ewell had booked his place on the US team for the 1948 Games when he equalled the world record of 10.2 seconds in the 100metres sprint in that year’s American trials.

In the final of the 100metres at London, he believed he had crossed the finishing line first, only to discover from the photo finish that teammate Harrison Dillard had, in fact, won the gold.

In the 200metres, Ewell was involved in another close finish, this time coming second to fellow American Mel Patton.

But Ewell was to finally earn his sought-after gold medal when he joined the victorious 4 x 100metres relay team because Ed Conwell was ill.

One of the Borderers who was in London to watch the likes of Dixon, Ewell and company competing, was John Carruthers, from Hawick.

He recalled how the games were the first major sporting event to take place after the Second World War. “I was doing my national service army training at the time with the Royal Army Ordinance Corps, based at Feltham, near London.

“We did our army training in the morning and got free time in the afternoons. I managed to get two separate day tickets for the track and field events on Wembley Stadium’s cinder track.

“I can remember that Harrison Dillard of the US won the men’s 100metres final, and Fanny Blankers-Koens of Holland won the women’s 100metres.

“The 5,000 metres final was won by Gaston Reiff of Belgium who beat Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia.”

An interesting aside to John’s fascinating account of the 1948 Games is that Blankers-Koens famously won the hearts of Londoners by being spotted cycling to the stadium for events with a paper bag over the handlebars containing her packed lunch sandwiches.

The stories of Craig Dixon, Barney Ewell and John Carruthers feature in the new guide for local schools.

Entitled Border Olympians and Paralympians: A Learning Resource, the booklet was compiled from original research by Henry Gray, with design work by the Heritage Hub.