Death of a Tragic Jumper

Death of
      a Tragic
      Jumper

"What saddens me most is the way we forgot João and so
many other idols. We wait until they die, are killed or go through some tragedy before we
put them in the news. I guess this is a cultural question in Brazil."
By Alessandra Dalevi

Oscar, the former basketball player hero, was there as well as judo
Olympic champion, Aurélio Miguel, and Ademar Ferreira da Silva, twice Olympic champion
(1952 and 1956) for triple jump Several authorities came to say goodbye, including São
Paulo governor Mário Covas. Some 2,000 people in all paid their last respect to a man who
was better known as João do Pulo (Jumping John) after winning the Olympic gold medal in
the triple jump category. There was also an honor guard from the Army, where João Carlos
de Oliveira served as a lieutenant, and the wake was held at the São Paulo Assembly
building where Oliveira served as an elected state assemblyman for two four-year mandates.

Despite the pomp and circumstance, the Olympic hero and record breaker
felt forgotten by Brazilians. He started to drink heavily and died of cirrhosis of the
liver on Saturday, May 29, the day after his 45th birthday, having spent one month at the
Beneficência Portuguesa Hospital in São Paulo. He was buried in Pindamonhangaba, the
little town in the São Paulo interior where he was born.

João Sete Vidas (John Seven Lives) was another of his nicknames. It
had to do with all the adversity and tragedies he had to face during his life: a poor
childhood, a fight against tuberculosis when he was five, and the 1981 accident that
caused the amputation of his right leg. His father was as a railway man. Oliveira was
still a little boy when his mother died and he was raised by a stepmother who allegedly
beat him constantly.

From 1986 to 1994 he was an assemblyman. The hero jumper was elected
with 25,000 votes the first time and with 32,000 the second. Attempts in 1994 and four
years later to return to his old office failed, though. He couldn’t get more than 7,000
votes during his last ill-fated campaign in 1998. That same year, the mother of his
daughter Thaís, 11—he was never married to her—took him to court for
non-payment of child support. Unable to pay, he ended up in jail. In another forum a suit
is still pending, claiming he is the father of a 4-year old boy, Emanuel.

In an emotional statement to Rio’s daily O Globo, Pedro Henrique
Camargo de Toledo, 59, Oliveira’s former coach, declared: "I am going to repeat what
other people have said, `João was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known.
He was born at the wrong time, in a country without an athletic tradition and had a coach
who lacked the credentials to work with a talent like his. Someone with more experience
would have probably done more for him and were I his coach today I don’t know how far he
would be able to jump.

"What saddens me most is the way we forgot João and so many other
idols. We wait until they die, are killed or go through some tragedy before we put them in
the news. I guess this is a cultural question in Brazil. The government or some other
organization should take the initiative—and this does not mean getting handouts from
the government. In Mexico there is a program to help those who get Olympic medals. They
may be invited to openings, conferences and to work on sports centers. This is a way to
avoid burying them alive."

Who’s
That Man?

It was October 15, 1975, when Brazilians and the world first took
notice of a young Brazilian competing at the Pan-American Games in Mexico. He jumped 17.89
m (58.69 feet) in the triple jump, an astounding 45 cm (1.47 feet) more than the record
established by Russian Vladimir Swanesev. João was 21. That’s when he became João do
Pulo. The record would be broken only ten year later by American Willie Banks, who jumped
17.97 m.

On December 22, 1981, João do Pulo was driving back from being honored
at Campinas Catholic University PUC when his Volkswagen Passat collided with another car
coming the wrong way on the Anhangüera roadway. The other driver died. Oliveira remained
in a coma for four days, and after 23 operations the doctors gave up trying to save his
right leg. The athlete spent 333 days at the hospital. He was 27, with a very promising
future, when his leg was amputated on September 8, 1982.

He was seen as the favorite in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, but
ended up losing to the Russian Viktor Saneev, getting a bronze medal instead. In the next
Olympics, in Moscow, he again came in third, (there were charges of fraud benefiting the
Russian athlete). He continued winning several international competitions, including the
one in Rome in September 1981, when he became triple jump champion for the third time. In
1992 Harry Seinberg, coach for Estonia, admitted that there had been fraud in Moscow in
1980 and apologized to the Brazilian athlete. But later he recanted.

Lately João do Paulo had a daily routine in Guarulhos, Greater São
Paulo, where he lived. Late in the afternoons he used to sit alone on a little stool
outside his house drinking beer and looking at people go by. If anybody asked he didn’t
refuse an autograph. But these requests had become rarer and rarer. He was surviving on a
$700 pension he received for the time he served in the Army. A bakery and a transportation
company he started went bankrupt. In better times his house was always full of people and
he had memorable barbecue parties, which could last three days, with gifts for the
children. Then there was no money left.

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