Glenn “Jeep” Davis, who has died aged 74, was the first athlete to win the 400 metres hurdles at consecutive Olympic Games. He turned what were then known as the “low hurdles” into a glamour event, and was arguably the greatest hurdler until Edwin Moses. A multi-talented sportsman, Davis followed athletics with a brief career in American football, but at his peak as a runner he was as big a celebrity as any professional sportsman.
Glenn Ashby Davis was born in 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.
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.
He had already been nicknamed “Jeep” after a comic-strip character; as his fame grew, the nickname was a usefulway of differentiating him from another Glenn Davis, the 1940s Army gridiron star.
The family moved to Marietta, Ohio, where Davis 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. But when Davis was 15, both his parents died – 12 hours apart – and he went to live with an older brother in Barberton, outside Akron. He was an all-state gridiron player, but when the Barberton Magics won the 1954 state high-school athletics championship, with Davis individually outscoring every other team, 200 college scholarship offers followed.
Davis chose Ohio State, following in the footsteps of Jesse Owens.
American track events were still measured in yards, so Davis had never run the 400m hurdles before the 1956 US Olympic trials, where he became the first man to run under 50 seconds, setting a world record at 49.5.
In the final in Melbourne, he won with an Olympic record of 50.1sec.
Davis returned to dominate college athletics. At the 1958 Big Ten Conference championship he won both the hurdles and the 440-yard flat race, where he set a world record of 45.8sec.
That summer, he joined an American team touring the European summer circuit, where he won nine of his 10 races, lowering his own 400m hurdle record to 49.2. That year he received the Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete; in the days before professionalism, the award conferred celebrity status on the college runner.
In the 1960 Olympic final in Rome, Davis, despite drawing the outside lane, came through in the final 10 metres to win in 49.3, just off his world mark. He won his third gold medal in the 4x400 metres 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, despite not having played gridiron since high school.
Though the team created a new formation to utilise his speed, he caught only 10 passes in two seasons.
After injuries curtailed his 1961 season he retired, and in 1963 he became the athletics coach at Cornell University.
After winning the Ivy League title in 1967 he returned to Barberton, where for 26 years he was a teacher and football coach, as well as coaching a successful string of track teams.
After retiring he ran Jeep’s Olympic Driving School and Jeep and Joe’s Pizza.
In 1999, the people of Barberton raised money to erect a statue in the centre of town of Davis in full flight clearing a hurdle. But his greatest memorial may be the record he still holds at Ohio State, for the 50-yard high hurdles. As the race is no longer contested, it should last forever.
Glenn Davis, athlete: born Wellsburg, West Virginia 12 September 1934; married (two sons, one daughter); died Barberton, Ohio 28 January 2009.