Obituary: Eulace Peacock

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It is one of sport's, indeed history's, great might-have beens. Had not a electrifying young black American sprinter and long-jumper badly torn his right hamstring in the spring of 1936, the Berlin Olympics that year might today be remembered not for the feats of Jesse Owens, but for those of Eulace Peacock.

The mid-Thirties were an earlier golden age of American track and field, and no rivalry was greater or more friendly than that of Owens and Peacock. Both were born in racist and segregated Alabama, and both were forced north to develop their talents - Owens to Ohio, Peacock to New Jersey, where in 1933 he set a state student long-jump record of 24ft 41/4in that survived until 1977.

But the pair's real fireworks however came two years later. First, in the space of just 45 minutes during a college championship meeting on 25 May 1935, Owens turned himself into a global superstar by breaking five world records and equalling a sixth within the space of 45 minutes. He seemed invincible - at least for six weeks until the national amateur championships in July when Peacock first beat him in the 100 metres in a wind-aided world record time of 10.2 seconds, and then captured the long jump with a leap of 26ft 3in.

That year, out of 10 track and long-jump meetings with Owen, Peacock won seven, and in the 100 metres did not lose to him over the three years until his hamstring went, just before the 1936 Olympic trials. "What can you do?" he said later. "I couldn't shed any tears, it happened and that was it . . . Sure I was disappointed, but you can't spend your life thinking about what might have been." What might have been, in the view of his peers, was one if not both sprint titles in Berlin, and a second black athlete to destroy the Hitlerian myth of Aryan supremacy.

Although Peacock continued running with huge success after 1936, his moment was lost. The Second World War, in which he served as a Coast Guard, prevented the Olympics of 1940 and 1944, and by the time of the London games in 1948, he was far past his best. Thereafter he kept in touch with the sport by officiating as a judge at athletics meetings.

Such was his friendship with Owens that the two jointly owned a wholesale meat packing business in Harlem and the Bronx, before Owens died of lung cancer in 1980, Seven years later, Peacock was belatedly elected into America's Track and Field Hall of Fame, but the last years of his life were marred by Alzheimer's disease. Denied gold medals and the role of hero at the most infamous Olympics ever, his true legacy is a tribute from Owens. "Eulie, when we were running, I got to the point I couldn't beat you. I could beat them all, but not you."

Rupert Cornwell

Eulace Peacock, athlete: born Dothan, Alabama 27 August 1914; died Yonkers, New York 13 December 1996.