As the world excitedly anticipates the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it is fitting to remember a race held 80 years ago today.
University of Pittsburgh freshman and Connellsville, Pa., native John Woodruff won the 800-meter gold medal with a time of 1:52.9 in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, Germany. Shortly afterward, the Muratti Cigarettes company produced a series of commemorative trading cards, one featuring “Long John,” as Woodruff was known. The card’s reverse caption, translated from German, reads in part: “A moment from the 800m run / In front, Canadian [Phil] Edwards, behind him the American Negro Woodruff who won the race.” Woodruff contributed to an impressive African American-led U.S. track and field performance that year, strikingly commemorated in the Muratti set.
Germany was chosen to host the 1936 Olympic Games in 1931, two years before the Nazi party’s rise to power. Later, the official Nazi party’s newspaper called for the exclusion of Jewish and Black athletes from competition. Boycott discussions throughout many countries ensued worldwide. Hitler’s propaganda machine was in full force as the games were the first to be seen on live, closed-circuit television (albeit in only a few German cities).
African American U.S. athletes were poised for greatness. Along with fellow track and field medalists Jesse Owens, Mack Robinson (the elder brother of baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson), Ralph Metcalfe, and others, Woodruff convincingly dispelled German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s assertions of the superiority of an Aryan race on perhaps the world’s biggest stage. At 6’4”, the 21-year-old Woodruff found himself boxed in during the race and boldly decided to slow down, let runners pass him by, then use his nearly ten-foot stride to gain the lead on the outside.
World War II started three years later in 1939, and two years later, in 1941, the U.S. joined the war. After the war, a hiatus for the Olympics lasted 12 years until London hosted the games in 1948.
John Woodruff passed away at the age of 92 in 2007 but his legacy lives on in the impact of his legendary race. An oak sapling he brought back from Berlin is still alive, 80 years later, planted outside of Connellsville High School.
“We did very well. We destroyed Hitler’s Master Race Theory,” John Woodruff recalled in a 2002 oral history interview with former History Center curator Nicholas Ciotola.
Please visit the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum to see a recast of John Woodruff’s gold medal, watch film of his Olympic race, and compare your stride to Woodruff’s.
Craig Britcher is a project coordinator with the History Center & the assistant curator of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.