As the Pitt community reflects on important figures from its past and looks to the future during Black History Month, the University celebrates alumnus and track star John Woodruff, who thrilled onlookers with a stunning victory at the 800-meter event at the 1936 Olympic Games.
While some athletic groups argued for an Olympic boycott that year because of racial policies in Germany, Black newspapers and others objected, arguing that it was hypocritical to boycott the Berlin Olympics without first addressing the problems of discrimination against Blacks in the United States.
Ultimately, 18 Black athletes competed, 16 men and two women, which was triple the number that had competed in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
And Woodruff’s run at the Games is the stuff of legend. A lanky 21-year-old Pitt freshman who lacked international running experience, Woodruff got boxed in by veteran runners 300 meters into the contest. Realizing he would be disqualified if he fouled another runner, Woodruff paused, moved to the track’s third lane, let the other runners pass by and began again. As he started from the back of the pack, his nine-foot stride lengthened and he passed one rival after another. He was leading when the finish line came into view and he sprinted through the tape at 1:52:9. The New York Herald Tribune called Woodruff’s stop-and-restart technique “the most daring move ever seen on a track.”
Woodruff earned the gold medal, which he donated to Pitt in 1990. It is on display on the first floor of Hillman Library, near the Dick Thornburgh Room.
Woodruff went on to win the Amateur Athletic Union 800-meter championship in 1937 and National Collegiate Athletic Association 880-yard titles from 1937 through 1939. During the 1940 Compton Invitational in California, he ran the 800 meters in 1:48.6, a U.S. record that lasted 12 years. He finished his degree in sociology at Pitt in 1939 and eventually earned a master’s degree at New York University in 1941. Woodruff served in the U.S. Army, worked with the Children’s Aid Society in New York City and taught in public schools there, among other jobs throughout his life.
Woodruff last visited the University during Homecoming Week 2006, when he was honored for the 70th anniversary of his Olympic victory. He died on Oct. 30, 2007, at age 92.
In 2018, Woodruff was inaugurated into the Pitt Hall of Fame.
This story is adapted from a Pitt Athletics obituary of Woodruff.
Students in anthropology lecturer Gabby Yearwood’s study abroad class, “Sport As Global Spectacle: 2020 Summer Olympics,” will visit planning officials, local leaders and regional experts in Japan to learn about the impact of this year’s games. Watch for coverage of their trip and more on the Olympics this summer in Pittwire.