Paying Tribute to Long John’s L-O-N-G Gold-Medal Run
70 years ago, Pitt alumnus John Woodruff helped to spoil the Berlin Olympic Games for Hitler
During the first-quarter break of the Sept. 16 Pitt-Michigan State football game at Heinz Field, Pitt will pay tribute to John Woodruff (CAS ’39), recognizing the 70th anniversary of his gold-medal-winning 800-meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Woodruff’s health won’t allow him to attend the Sept. 16 tribute. Poor circulation forced the amputation of his legs above the knees three years ago. He also has undergone spine surgery and a hip replacement.
“My mind is still good, though,” said Woodruff, 91, speaking by telephone from Fountain Hills, Ariz., near Phoenix, where he shares an apartment in a senior housing complex with his wife of 36 years, Rose. “I’d rather have a good mind and no legs than a poor mind and good legs.”
When John Woodruff made what the New York Herald-Tribune would later call the “most daring move seen on a track,” many of the 110,000 onlookers in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium gasped. Some even screamed at Woodruff’s audacity. But the crowd response didn’t register with Woodruff, then a lanky 21-year-old who had recently completed his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh.
“You see, when you’re running a race, you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. You may hear noise, but you can’t hear anything distinctly,” Woodruff explained in a phone interview last week, seven decades after he and other African American Olympians spiked the myth of Aryan athletic superiority by winning eight Olympic gold medals in the Nazi capital. Woodruff’s close friend, Jesse Owens, won four of the U.S. gold medals—a record at the time.
Woodruff does remember the absence of one sound during the early going of the 800-meter final—that of labored breathing.
“When the race got started, a Canadian doctor named Phil Edwards set the pace,” he recalled. “My strategy was to follow him in second position. It was a slow pace, so slow that we weren’t even breathing hard. Unfortunately for me, it was also so slow that, after completing the first lap, I got boxed in by other runners.”
Woodruff knew he would be disqualified if he fouled another runner in breaking free. Rather than risk that—or panicking or resigning himself to less than a gold medal—he coolly did the unthinkable. He stopped running.
“I knew I had to do something drastic if I was to have any chance of winning the race,” Woodruff said. “So, I stopped and moved over onto the third lane of the track. I let my opponents pass me by, and then I started the race all over again.”
Woodruff had been the favorite going into the Olympic 800-meter race, based on a string of victories in collegiate meets, U.S. Olympic team trials, and an Olympic semifinal race in Berlin that he had won by 20 yards. But compared with the veteran runners in the 800-meter final, Woodruff was virtually a novice. As such, he had been ripe for getting trapped in a box.
“I was still pretty young, and I guess my style was a little unsophisticated,” he acknowledged with a chuckle.
However, Woodruff had built up great stamina at Pitt while training for longer distances, like the mile. And, at 6 feet 3.25 inches, he was unusually tall for a middle-distance runner. Woodruff’s remarkably long stride—nine feet in length—had earned him the nickname Long John.
On Aug. 4, 1936, his long, powerful legs would carry Woodruff to track immortality.
From a dead stop in the back of the pack, Woodruff took off, his stride lengthening as he passed one rival after another. He gained the lead, relinquished it briefly, then re-took it and sprinted for the finish line. Holding off a final charge by Mario Lanzi of Italy, Woodruff broke the tape at 1:52.9. For the first time in 24 years, the United States had won an Olympic gold medal in the 800 meters.
Only after he’d finished the race, when he saw blood running down his leg, did Woodruff realize another runner had spiked him when Woodruff had moved to the outside of the pack.
To this day, Woodruff isn’t sure whether Adolf Hitler witnessed his run. “I used to see Hitler in his box at the stadium,” Woodruff recalled. “He was surrounded by lieutenants and aides. I still remember seeing those black-red-and-white Nazi uniforms and flags. I understand that when I ran my race, Hitler left the stadium, although I’ve heard conflicting reports about that.”
The German Führer had expected the Berlin Olympics to showcase Aryan superiority. But Woodruff and other African Americans on the U.S. team spoiled the Nazis’ party. Hitler was incensed—as much by the German crowds’ cheering for Black athletes as by those athletes’ victories.
“As far as I was concerned, the German people treated us very well,” Woodruff said. “Very well.
“I saw Nazi soldiers marching in the city and a lot of swastikas, but I didn’t pay attention to that,” he added. “I wasn’t interested in politics, so those things didn’t bother me one way or the other.”
Besides, racism was hardly unfamiliar to Woodruff. The grandson of former Virginia slaves, he was one of 12 children (some of whom died in infancy) of Silas Woodruff, a coke worker, and his wife Sarah, who did laundry for families in the Woodruffs’ hometown of Connellsville, Pa. John was a star football player at Connellsville High until his mother made him quit. “I was getting home after football practice too late to take care of my chores around the house,” he explained.
At age 16, Woodruff dropped out of high school to seek work in the local glass factory. But in the depths of the Great Depression, the factory wasn’t hiring anyone—especially not Negroes, he was told. So, Woodruff returned to school. Remembering how Woodruff had smoked his football teammates during practice runs, a Connellsville High assistant football coach who doubled as the school’s track coach urged Woodruff to try the latter sport. Track practice ended early enough not to interfere with his chores, so Woodruff’s mother gave her blessing.
By the time Woodruff graduated from Connellsville High, he had set new track records at the school, county, district, and state levels. In 1935, he set a national high school record in the mile with a 4:23.4 time.
Connellsville businessmen helped Woodruff gain an athletic scholarship to Pitt, where he arrived with 25 cents in his pocket.
“I got a room at the YMCA in the Hill District and a job helping to clean Pitt Stadium and the basketball gym after games,” recalled Woodruff. “Later on, I got a better job, helping to keep up the grounds” on Pitt’s campus. Financial assistance from Pitt track coach Carl Olson and from Robert L. Vann, editor and publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, helped Woodruff pay his living expenses during his freshman year at Pitt and, subsequently, in Berlin during the Olympic Games.
Following their triumphs in Berlin, Woodruff and some of his Olympic teammates competed successfully in local meets in Germany, England, and France. Upon returning to Connellsville, Woodruff was honored with a parade attended by an estimated 10,000 people.
Woodruff gave to his hometown the Black Forest oak sapling that a young German girl had presented to him as he stood atop the Olympic victory stand. The tree still stands, 78 feet tall now, towering over the track at the Connellsville Area Senior High School stadium.
After earning his B.A. degree in sociology at Pitt in 1939, Woodruff completed a master’s degree in the same field at New York University in 1941. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. He went on to work with the New York City Children’s Aid Society; to teach in that city’s public schools; and to serve as a special investigator for the New York Department of Welfare, as Recreation Center Director for the New York City Police Athletic League and as a parole officer for the State of New York.
Woodruff donated his Olympic gold medal to Pitt, where it is on display on Hillman Library’s ground floor, and his other track medals and Olympic sweater to Connellsville high school. He doesn’t miss those mementos, he said.
But Woodruff said he does miss the visits he used to make to Connellsville each July to fire the starting gun for the John Woodruff 5K Run and Walk, a duty he performed well into his 80s. And, Woodruff regrets having been forced to surrender, more recently, his dream of seeing one last time the oak tree in Connellsville that commemorates his Olympic glory.
“I had hoped to visit that tree again,” Woodruff said, “but I consulted with my doctor, and he advised against me making another trip like that. But that’s okay. For a man my age, I’m feeling pretty good. I have no complaints.”
Other Stories From This Issue
On the Freedom Road
Follow a group of Pitt students on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour, a nine-day, 2,300-mile journey crisscrossing five states.
Day 1: The Awakening
Day 2: Deep Impressions
Day 3: Music, Montgomery, and More
Day 4: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Day 5: Learning to Remember
Day 6: The Mountaintop
Day 7: Slavery and Beyond
Day 8: Lessons to Bring Home
Day 9: Final Lessons