This week’s Triple Jump Legend is a jumper who added a massive 45 centimetres to the World Record as a 21 year-old, won 2 Olympic medals, won Long & Triple Jump golds at 2 Pan-American games, but whose athletics career and life were both tragically ended prematurely – the great João Carlos de Oliveira.
Born in São Paulo, Brazil, 1954, de Oliveira began his sporting career as a Basketball and Volleyball player, putting his 1.89 metre frame to good use. Turning to the Triple Jump in his late teens, he first came to international prominence when he took gold in the 1972 South American Junior Championships in Asunción, Paraguay, with a leap of 14.67m – 60 cm clear of his compatriot Rodney Gomes in 2nd place. By the time he hit the senior ranks he had already set a World Junior Record of 14.75m.
In the 1974 South American Championships in Santiago, Chile, aged just 20, he took gold in the Triple Jump with a leap of 16.34m, equalling the Championship Record, with his esteemed countryman Nelson Prudêncio in 2nd place with 16.09m. De Oliveira also took home a bronze medal in the Long Jump with 7.17m.
In 1975 de Oliveira obliterated the World Record with his final leap at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. Albeit at high altitude, his leap of 17.89m, bettering Viktor Saneyev’s previous record of 17.44m from 1972, still stands as the single biggest improvement ever in the Triple Jump World Record. His phase breakdowns that day were estimated to be 6.09m: 5.37m: 6.43m. De Oliveira also took the Long Jump gold, jumping 8.19m to win by a clear 25 cm.
1976 was Olympic year and, now in the army, de Oliveira’s gold medal hopes were dashed as he recovered from stomach surgery. However, he still managed to take bronze with his last round effort of 16.90m behind Saneyev, who completed a hat-trick of Olympic Triple Jump titles with 17.29m, and the American James Butts (17.18m). De Oliveira also competed in the Long Jump in Montreal, coming 5th with 8.00m as Arnie Robinson (USA) took gold with 8.35m.
Despite Olympic disappointment, de Oliveira headed the World Rankings for 1976 with a best jump of 17.38m ahead of Saneyev’s best from Montreal. In the 5 years from 1975-1979 de Oliveira topped the World Rankings on 4 occasions. Only in 1977 did he fail as his year’s best of 16.81m placed him equal 8th behind Ron Livers (USA) best of 17.19m.
In 1979 de Oliveira repeated his Long Jump/Triple Jump double gold achievement at the Pan American Games, this time in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He took Triple Jump gold with the World Best that year, 17.27m, with rising star Willie Banks (USA) 2nd with 16.88m and Butts taking bronze with 16.69m. In winning the Long Jump with 8.18m he took the scalp of an 18 year-old Carl Lewis who came 3rd with 8.13m.
In 1980 de Oliveira headed to Moscow hopeful of putting his disappointment from Montreal firmly behind him. It was to be bronze again, though, with his 3rd round effort of 17.22m behind the Soviet Union’s Jaak Uudmäe (17.35m) and Saneyev’s final round effort of 17.24m, with Britain’s Keith Connor in 4th (16.87m). The final result will always be tainted with doubt though as many of the leaps of de Oliveira and Australia’s Ian Campbell were ruled illegal by officials seemingly intent to aid Saneyev’s attempt to win a 4th Olympic Triple Jump gold. Many observers, including de Oliveira himself, claimed his last round effort was close to 17.80m before given a red flag and the pit hastily raked. De Oliveira also qualified for the Long jump final a few days later but didn’t start as an effort by the Brazilian Athletics Federation to annul the Triple Jump result ended in a rejection by the International Olympic Committee.
In 1981 de Oliveira ended the season 2nd in the World Rankings with 17.37m behind Willie Banks (17.56m). He took gold in the World Cup competition in Rome to complete a hat-trick of victories in the event following earlier successes in Düsseldorf (1977) and Montreal (1979). In November 1981 he also took gold in the South American Championships in La Paz, Bolivia, with a Championship Record of 17.05m, some 82 cm ahead of Francisco Pichott of Chile. It would prove to be his final competition as the following month he was involved a brutal car crash in Brazil.
His vehicle was hit by a drunken driver on the wrong side of the road – the other driver died and de Oliveira had part of his right leg amputated as a result of his injuries. At just 27 years-old his athletics career was over. In 1999 at the age of just 45, following the end of his military career and a brief spell in politics, de Oliveira tragically died as the result of alcoholism. Brazilians mourned in their thousands at his funeral at the tragic loss of a great man and a truly great athlete. As the Olympics head to Rio this year, I hope that João Carlos de Oliveira’s life and achievements are recognised by a wider audience in what would only have been his 62nd year.