Obituary: Joao Carlos de Oliveira

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The Independent Culture
JOAO CARLOS de Oliveira, "Joao do Pulo", or "Jumping Joao", was one of the greatest athletes in South American track and field history. He belonged to a Brazilian dynasty of triple jumpers that included the twice Olympic champion Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, and the double Olympic medallist Nelson Prudencio, de Oliveira's mentor in his early years.

Like Prudencio, de Oliveira was never Olympic champion, but the world record he set at the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City stood for nearly 10 years, and only some highly contentious officiating in Moscow in 1980 deprived him of the Olympic gold medal he so richly deserved. Two years later, at the age of just 27, his career was over following a terrible car crash.

De Oliveira was born in Pindamonhangaba, 90 miles north-east of Sao Paulo, in 1954. He came to the attention of the athletics world at the age of 21 with his world record of 17.89 metres, splashing down in the same sand- pit where, seven years earlier, Bob Beamon had landed after leaping into long jump and Olympic folklore.

He had broken the three-year-old record of his great Soviet rival, Viktor Saneyev, by an extraordinary 45 centimetres, and it was another decade before the American Willie Banks took the event a step further. Even now, de Oliveira's mark is a South American record while his personal best long jump of 8.36 metres, set in Rieti in 1979, was also a South American record for 15 years.

But although he remained the world record holder throughout his Olympic career, the greatest prize of all proved elusive. At his first Games, in Montreal the following year, he was third with 16.90 metres and finished fifth in the long jump final. Four years later in Moscow, a politically sensitive event that suffered from the American boycott, the triple jump final was marred by ugly scenes.

De Oliveira was whistled and jeered at by the Soviet crowd as he jumped, while the leading non-Soviet contenders de Oliveira and Ian Campbell of Australia were charged by the officials with nine fouls in 12 jumps. In the final round de Oliveira jumped as close to his record as he had ever done but it was adjudged a foul. Soviet athletes, including Saneyev, took gold and silver while de Oliveira had to settle for his second bronze medal.

But in spite of his bad luck at the Olympics, he won the IAAF World Cup on three occasions (1977, 1979 and 1981), and three more Pan American gold medals, as well as numerous South American titles including victory at La Paz on 5 November 1981. This though was to be de Oliveira's final competition.

Two months later, his car was hit head-on by that of a drunken driver going the wrong way at night on a highway. De Oliveira was badly injured, and, after a nine-month battle to salvage his athletic career, his right leg was finally amputated below the knee.

After his accident, he was twice elected as a deputy of Sao Paulo state between 1986 and 1994, but he hit financial problems when he failed to win a third election and saw a handful of business ventures flounder.

After that he was unemployed and began to drink heavily, but last year de Oliveira announced that he would train to compete with an artificial leg in the long jump in next year's Paralympics in Sydney, not to win but to set an example. However he abandoned training earlier this year amid illness and depression, according to friends.

He was in hospital for more than a month, suffering from a variety of ailments including pneumonia, hepatitis B and cirrhosis, before succumbing to multiple organ failure two days after his 45th birthday. Some 2,000 mourners visited his coffin, which was draped in the Brazilian national flag, at the Legislative Assembly in Sao Paulo, while at the Maracana football stadium in Rio de Janeiro a minute's silence was observed before the game between Vasco da Gama and Botafogo.

"He continues to be, for me, one of the 10 best athletes the world has seen," said Pedro do Toledo, his former trainer. "He could have done much more if he had been born at a different time, in a different country."

Joao Carlos de Oliveira, athlete: born Pindamonhangaba, Brazil 28 May 1954; died Sao Paulo 30 May 1999.