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Monday, August 07, 2006

All-Time Top Tens -- Men's 800 meters

Fifth in a continuing series.

#10. Joaquim Cruz, Brazil
#9. Mel Sheppard, USA
#8. Alberto Juantorena, Cuba
#7. Ted Meredith, USA

#6. "Long" John Woodruff, USA
Born July 5, 1915, Connellsville, Pennsylvania

Woodruff earns the #5 spot with a well-rounded resume. He was clearly the world's best half-miler for the 1936 and '37 seasons, with only a single loss over that time period, an Olympic gold medal, and a world's best time (more on that later). He was one of the world's best half milers for the next three years.

Times were hard for Woodruff. When he arrived as a college freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1935, he bought only 25 cents with him. A meteoric rise in the spring of 1936 led to surprising wins at the Olympic semi-final try-outs, the final try-outs, and then the Olympic Games. In the Olympic finals, he was boxed in coming around the final turn. An observer at the time said "when John was boxed in, there was no way to get out, so he had to stop, then get to the outside. Those were all smart experienced runners, but he won his medal the hard way, on ability and courage against them. Had he not been boxed and forced to go outside, if he could have led all the way, you have to wonder what time would have been."

The 1936 U.S. Olympic track team was the first with a significant number of black athletes. Woodruff is the last living member of that team. Stories have sprung up about Adolph Hitler's attitude towards and treatment of these black men; Jesse Owens is generally described as having disproved the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority. Yet all these athletes came home to an unchanged American myth of white racial superiority. Woodruff himself was a victim on the track.

In 1937 the city of Dallas held a world's fair called the "Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition" which included a track meet. In the 880 yards, Woodruff was matched against World Record holder Elroy Robinson. Woodruff trounced him and took 1.6 seconds off of Robinson's record. But there was a problem. This was Dallas, Woodruff was black, and Robinson was white. The track, certified beforehand by Southern Methodist University's head enginer to within 1/1000th of an inch, was found to be six yards short on remeasurement after the race.

In "Tales of Gold", Woodruff is blunt. "You know what happened. Those boys got their heads together and decided they weren't going to give a black man a white man's record." In other words, the good-old-boy system screwed him out of a record which was rightfully his. Pro-rated to the full 800 meter distance, it was still a world record 1:48.0, and the Association of Track and Field Statisticians carries it as such on their lists.

After his university days were over, Woodruff served in both World War II and Korea, finishing his career as a Lieutenant Colonel. He
worked with the New York City Children's Aid Society, taught school in New York City, was a special investigator for the New York Dept. of Welfare, was Recreation Center Director for the New York City Police Athletic League, and served as a parole officer for the state of New York. An annual 5k is held in his honor in Connellsvile, PA.

Year Rank Mark Meets, Etc
1936 1 1:49.9* 2)AAU, 1)Oly Trials, 1)Oly Gms; just one loss
1937 1 1:48.0° WB 1)NCAA, 1)AAU; undefeated
1938 2 1:50.6* 1)NCAA
1939 3 1:50.5* 1)NCAA
1940 2 1:47.0+ib
* = 880y time less 0.7 sec; + = time en route to 880y

Links: Wikipedia

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