Atkinson came onto the international athletics scene in 1922, when he ran the 110 m hurdles in 15.2 and the 400 m hurdles in 56.5. He was also a notable long jumper.
At the 1924 Summer Olympics, the favourite for the 110 m hurdles was AmericanGeorge Guthrie. But as the race started, Atkinson and another American Daniel Kinsey got off to a quick start and ran nearly together until the eighth flight when Atkinson edged ahead. Atkinson clipped his toe on the last barrier, giving Kinsey enough of lead to break the tape and win the gold. Guthrie crashed through the barriers behind the two medalists and was disqualified for timber topping.
Atkinson reappeared at the next Olympics, finally getting his gold after the disappointment of 1924, beating the world record holder Steve Anderson from the United States into second place.