John Woodruff, 92; Won A Gold in Hitler's Berlin

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

John Woodruff, 92, who helped refute Adolf Hitler's theories of Aryan racial supremacy with his dramatic gold-medal victory in the 800-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, died Oct. 30 at an assisted living facility in Fountain Hills, Ariz.

He had kidney failure and diabetes, which led to the amputation of his legs several years ago.

The Berlin games are widely remembered as the Olympics in which U.S. track star Jesse Owens won four gold medals and banished the notion that black athletes were not as talented as their white counterparts. But the lanky Mr. Woodruff, with his come-from-behind victory in the 800 meters, was the first African American runner to ascend the podium in Berlin and claim a gold medal.

In all, 10 African American athletes -- nine in track and one in boxing -- were awarded medals at the so-called Nazi Olympics. The black track athletes swept every running event from the 100 meters to 800 meters, as well as the high jump and long jump. Owens won the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the long jump and was on the winning 400-meter relay team.

Hitler's propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, pronounced the performances by America's "black auxiliaries" a "disgrace."

Mr. Woodruff was entering his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh and had been running competitively for only three years when he achieved his Olympic triumph. At 6-foot-3, he towered over most of the other runners and had a stride more than nine feet long.

During the first 400 meters of the two-lap race in Berlin, Mr. Woodruff found himself boxed in and unable to make a move toward the front. He was spiked in the knee and briefly stopped to allow the rest of the field to pass him.

"The pace was so slow, and all the runners crowded right around me," he told the Arizona Republic last year. "I had enough experience to know if I tried to get out of the trap, I was going to be disqualified. So I moved out into the third lane, and I let all the runners precede me. That's what made the race very outstanding. I actually started the race twice."

In the final 300 meters, Mr. Woodruff sprinted from last place to first, holding off a late charge by Italy's Mario Lanzi to win the gold medal in 1:52.9.

The New York Herald-Tribune called his unorthodox maneuver "the most daring move seen on a track."

John Youie Woodruff was born July 5, 1915, in Connellsville, Pa. During football practice, a high school coach noticed that the youth easily beat his teammates in running laps and invited him to try out for track. By his senior year, "Long John" Woodruff had set state records in the half-mile (880 yards) and mile.

He made the University of Pittsburgh a national track power in the 1930s and anchored nine winning relay teams at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. He was the country's premier half-miler but was remarkably versatile, competing at distances from 220 yards to a mile.

"Woodruff is a wonder," Arthur J. Daley, a New York Times sports reporter, wrote in 1938. "That is about all there is to it."

Despite his prominence, Mr. Woodruff sometimes faced discrimination. In 1937, he was not allowed to run in a meet at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, even though he was the reigning Olympic champion.

At the 1937 Pan-American Games, he faced Elroy Robinson, a white runner who had just set a world record in the 800 meters. Mr. Woodruff won the race by 12 yards with a time of 1:47.8 -- almost two full seconds faster than Robinson's week-old record.

But officials disallowed Mr. Woodruff's time, ruling that the track was improperly measured and was several feet short.

"It was out-and-out discrimination," Mr. Woodruff told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1994. "That was the best race I ever ran, but [the officials] were determined not to give me the record.

"Before the meet, I read where the track was measured by experts from SMU to within one-thousandth of an inch. All of a sudden, it was six feet short."

Three years later, Mr. Woodruff claimed the record with a time of 1:48.6 and also established a new world indoor mark in the 880-yard run (slightly longer than 800 meters) at 1:47.6.

He was at his athletic peak when World War II broke out, forcing the Olympics to be canceled in 1940 and 1944. Mr. Woodruff entered the Army in 1941 and never raced again.

He served in World War II and Korea and retired in 1957 as a lieutenant colonel. He received a master's degree in sociology from New York University in 1941 and later worked as a public school teacher, welfare department investigator and parole officer in New York. He also was an official at the Penn Relays.

Survivors include his wife, Rose Woodruff of Fountain Hills; two children from an earlier marriage, John Woodruff Jr. of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Randilyn Gilliam of Chicago; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In 1936, Mr. Woodruff received a foot-tall oak sapling from the German government for his Olympic victory. Planted beside the track at his old high school in Connellsville, the Woodruff Oak is now nearly 80 feet tall.


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