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The first Pan-American Games of 1937 Was the Olympic 800 metres champion robbed of a World record ?

The First Pan-American Games of 1937: Was the Olympic 800 Metres Champion Robbed of a World Record ?

by Bob Phillips


The first official Pan-American Games took place in 1951, but there had been a meeting scheduled for 1942 which, like so many other fond plans in the USA, went by the board after the Japanese bombarded Pearl Harbor in December of the previous year. Going back even before then, a Games had been held in 1937, and though it doesn’t figure in the approved records it was of sufficient standard to be well worth remembering.


It was Avery Brundage, the autocratic (did someone say “dicatatorial” ?) president of the American Olympic Committee, who seemingly had the idea for a Pan-American mini-Olympics – or at least took the credit for it – and he put it into practice when he was elected to the executive board of the International Olympic Committee in 1937. Coincidentally, or maybe not, a grandiose “Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition” was organised that year, lasting from 12 June to 31 October, in Dallas, Texas, which was intended to convey “the romantic story of five centuries of conquest and achievement of the New World”. It’s not too clear in my mind that there’s any romanticism in the process of “conquest” … but I’m sure you get the idea.


The centre-piece was the “Pan-American Palace”, providing 26,700 square feet of exhibition space, and the 4,000-seater “Pan-American Casia”, which “offers the visitor the world’s greatest entertainers in an air-conditioned setting, eclipsing any venture in the history of American theater”. Well, this was Texas, you understand. As a side-line, and rather in the manner of the revived Modern Olympics of 1900 in Paris and 1904 in St Louis, various sports were also organised, including track & field, boxing, soccer and wrestling. These, fortunately, were for the most part rather better organised than those early Olympic endeavours, but with one very notable exception, as will be revealed.


The track & field competition took place at the Cotton Bowl stadium, and though the entries were no more than in single figures for any of the 14 men’s events except the marathon there were 10 countries involved. The AAU Championships had been staged in Milwaukee on 3-4 July, and being post-Olympic year a lot of the heroes of Berlin had by then finished their college careers and hung up their spikes – at least as far as amateur involvement in sport was concerned. The supreme sprinter/long jumper, Jesse Owens, was now out of the reckoning, as were such luminaries as Archie Williams (400 metres), Forrest Towns (110 metres hurdles), Glenn Hardin (400 metres hurdles) and Glenn Morris (decathlon). The only AAU winner who also had an Olympic gold medal in his locker was the 800 metres man, Johnny Woodruff.

That’s not to say that the AAU meet had been below par – far from it ! Meet records had been set in four events, including  by Woodruff  at 1:50.0 for 800 metres, and Glenn Cunningham had won his third successive title at 1500 metres. The team selection for the Pan-American meet was naturally based directly on what had happened some 850 miles north in Milwaukee,.


The Cotton Bowl track measured five laps to the mile, and the event which aroused the greatest discussion was the 800 metres in which Johnny Woodruff broke the World record by an enormous margin but was then denied the honour because it was claimed that the distance was 1.52 metres short. Elroy Robinson had led at halfway by three yards in 52.5, and Woodruff had gone on to win in 1:47.8, with Robinson timed in 1:48.8. The latter had run 1:49.6 for 880 yards (804.67 metres) only six days before, which was faster than any previous time at 800 metres or 880 yards. It is not entirely clear from the reports whether the Dallas track itself was declared to be below distance or whether it was simply the 800 metres which had started or finished in the wrong place. The suspicion remains that there may have been a more sinister reason for the record being rejected, and certainly Woodruff was convinced for the rest of his life that this was so.


He was the grandson of slaves in Virginia, and when he was interviewed by the “Philadelphia Daily News” in 1994 he said, “It was out-and-out discrimination. That was the best race I ever ran, but the officials were determined not to give me the record. Before the meet I read that the track was measured by experts to within one-thousandth of an inch. All of a sudden, it was six feet short”. Woodruff also said that he had written afterwards to the ruling body, the Amateur Athletic Union, in protest but never received a reply. Simply in the process of slowing down after crossing the finish-line, Woodruff would still have run 1:48.2 or 1:48.3 at worst for the full 800 metres, and had this sort of time been officially recorded then Britain’s Sydney Wooderson would not have got credit for his 1:48.4m/1:49.2y the following year and Woodruff would have remained the record-holder until Rudolf Harbig’s sensational 1:46.6 in 1939. In their series of statistics handbooks, “Track and Field Performances Through The Years”, the World-renowned experts, Rooney Magnusson, Don Potts and Roberto Quercetani, credit Woodruff with an estimated 1:48.0 that day in Dallas.


It was publicly stated that the Dean of Engineering at Southern Methodist University had personally vouched for the accurate measurement of the track, and there was no suggestion in the immediate reports of the race that the record would not be accepted – this was not announced until a week later. It’s perfectly conceivable, of course, that the officials could have made a genuine mistake in working out the markings for 800 metres, which would have consisted of two laps of the 352-yard circumference track plus 170.8 yards. It seems very likely that such an error was made regarding the 200 metres, which was won by Perrin Walker in an oddly slow 22.4, though he otherwise ran 21.1 during the year, but suspicions remain that Woodruff was denied recognition for non-athletic reasons..


Woodruff had begun his 1937 season with a couple of 880 yards races indoors in February and March and had run a brilliant 47.0 for 440 yards at the ICAAAA Championships in May (also winning the 880 yards the same day), which would rank 2nd in the World for the year to a fellow-American, Loren Benke (46.9y). At the end of August he went to Japan with an AAU team which also included the pole vaulters, Bill Sefton and Earle Meadows, and ran a 48.0 for 400 metres but no faster than 1:54.5 for 800 metres. Coincidentally, on the very same day that Woodruff was beating Robinson in Dallas another Olympic gold-medallist and one of Europe’s finest trackmen, Godfrey Brown, was also in the USA with the Oxford & Cambridge Universities’ team, achieving an impressive 48.6/1.52.2 double for 440 and 880 yards – but at the other end of the country in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What might have been achieved had Brown somehow been transported to Dallas to run as a guest against Woodruff ? Wishful thinking.  


John Youie Woodruff is unquestionably one of the great half-milers of all time. He had been born on 5 July 1915 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, in a family of 10 children. His father was a manual labourer and his mother a laundry-woman. One of only four Afro-American students at his high school, he set state scholastic records for 880 yards (1:55.1) and the mile (4:23.4) in 1935 and then dramatically won the Olympic title the next year. He stood 6ft 3in (1.91m) tall, and it was said of him that “he steps along with gigantic strides, his head pulled back as though he was trying to kick it with his heels – his form is bad, but his running is superb”. His stride was some 10ft in length ! He won the AAU title in 1937 and the NCAA (National Collegiate) title in 1937-38-39, and then went on to lead a highly distinguished military and civilian life.


Having graduated in 1939 from Pittsburgh State University with a degree in sociology, he earned a Masters’ degree at New York University in 1941. He went into the army, rising to the rank of Captain, and then re-enlisted during the Korean war and eventually retired with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1957. He became a track coach and official, a teacher, a welfare inspector and a recreation-center director. He lived to the age of 92, dying on 30 October 2007, and was the last surviving US track & field champion from the 1936 Olympics. Both his legs had been amputated above the knees in 2001.


The Dallas events took place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday 16-17-18 July, with heats of the 60 metres and 200 metres on the first day, all the track finals on the second day (for which there was a record crowd of 23,000 despite the temperature reaching 30degC), and the marathon on the third day. The US had entered 41 athletes, among them 13 winners of AAU titles earlier in the month, and there were 29 entries from other countries – Argentina 1, Brazil 6, Canada 5, Chile 1, Colombia 4, Cuba 4, Peru 4, Uruguay 2 and Venezuela 2. The South American Championships had been held in Sao Paulo at the end of May and the winners there had travelled to Dallas, financed by $100,000 put up by the exposition organisers.


The one non-US athlete to win an event was Jim Courtright, of Canada, who narrowly beat a gaggle of Americans in the javelin.. Americans took all thee medals at 800 metres, with Ross Bush 3rd. Glenn Cunningham took the 1500 in 3:56.4 from a team-mate, Charles Fenske. The USA even took the first three places at 5000 metres, won by Eino Pentti in 15:15.7, though it should be said that there was only one other competitor, a Colombian. Pentti had been born in Michigan but brought up in Finland, and he did not return to the USA until he was 24, retaining dual nationality. The best of the non-American runners in Dallas was the Argentinian, José Ribas, who had set World records for 30 kilometres and two hours, and he placed 2nd to the Welsh-born Pat Dengis in the marathon. Despite the US domination, these “Pan-American Games” were sufficient of a success that Brazil offered to stage a sequel the next year, but for whatever reason this never took place.     


Note: acknowledgments for information provided by the late Basilio Fuentes and by Andy Milroy and Thomas S. Hurst.


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