An Olympic moment

August 11, 2008

Speaking of the Olympics, Indiana was home for a while to the first African American ever to win an Olympic gold medal.

When people talk about how Hitler had his idea of Aryan supremacy demolished as a myth at the 1936 Olympics, they usually just talk about Jesse Owens. But there were 18 black athletes representing the U.S. at Munich, and they won 14 medals, including eight gold. One of them was John Woodruff, who took a gold in the 800-meter (before any of Owens’ races) with an unusual tactic. He was boxed in by other runners, so he just stopped dead on the track and let everybody pass him. That gave him room ro run, and he was so fact that he caught up with and passed everybody.

Then he came back to this country, not exactly to adulation for having shamed Hitler:

After the Olympics, we had a track meet to run at Annapolis, at the Naval Academy. Now here I am, an Olympic champion, and they told the coach that I couldn’t run. I couldn’t come. So I had to stay home, because of discrimination. That let me know just what the situation was. Things hadn’t changed. Things hadn’t changed.

Woodruff, who died last year at 92, lived in Indianapolis with his wife for a number of years. That city’s Crown Hill Funeral Home and Cemetery has just honored him with a memorial bench on his grave. I guess that’s supposed to be symbolic of “giving up the race” or something, but it somehow doesn’t seem appropriate for someone so fast, whose stop-and-start maneuver was called by one newspaper the “most daring move seen on a track.”

Go here for audio of Woodruff talking about his Olympic experience (keep scrolling down).

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