In 1935, a year before his triumphant performances in the Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens said, “I’ve already reached my peak. Peacock is just now reaching his. He’s a real athlete. I don’t know whether I can defeat him again.” Owens was not being falsely modest. He had been beaten by Eulace Peacock in five straight races and Peacock was being lauded by the former sprint champion Charles Paddock as the only solid bet to make the Olympic team while Owens was “pretty much burned out.”
What happened? Why don’t we know the name Eulace Peacock today?
Jesse Owens’s greatest rival was much like him. They were born less than a year apart, both in Alabama into sharecropping families who migrated north, Peacock to New Jersey, Owens to Cleveland. After distinguished high school careers, Peacock went on to run track at Temple University on a scholarship while Owens was starring at Ohio State.
Their rivalry built at a distance through the Summer of ’35 as they challenged and re-set world records in multiple events. After a spectacular performance at the Big 10 Championships in May (three world records broken in 45 minutes!) Owens was considered the favorite two months later when they met in head-to-head competition at the National Amateur Athletic Union Championship.
Not so fast. In what was called by a New York Times sportswriter “one of the greatest double upsets in the history of track,” Peacock shocked the world, beating Owens in the 100-meter dash and the long jump. Solidifying his standing as the premier track athlete in the world, Peacock went on to beat Owens in their next three sprints. It was at this point that Owens conceded that Peacock may well be the superior talent.
What Happened Next?
A month later, Peacock’s hamstring popped while he was running for the US National Team in Milan, sidelining him for several months. He broke down several more times in the run-up to the Olympic trials in ’36, failing to make the team that would compete in Berlin.
At the Games, Owens won gold in the 100 and 200 meter sprints, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relays, decisively undermining Hitler’s notions of Aryan racial superiority. He returned to a hero’s welcome in the States, the most famous athlete in the world. He could not stay in many hotels, was snubbed by FDR, and had to race against horses, greyhounds and trains for a while to capitalize on his fame, but that’s another sad story, a different flavor of bittersweet.
The Olympics were canceled in ’40 and ’44 due to WWII. By ’48, Peacock had retired from track. In the years after graduating from Temple, he worked for the New York Board of Education and the IRS, and served in the Coast Guard during the war, where he coached the track team to great success. Later, he owned and operated a liquor store, a car rental agency, an ice cream distribution business and – together with Jesse Owens – a wholesale meat company in Harlem and the Bronx. He also served as a judge at college track championships and Olympic qualifying events.
Where Are They Now?
Peacock died in 1982, two years after Owens. They are both members of the US National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
By virtually any metric you prefer – books published, documentaries produced, articles written, on-line searches performed – the story of Jesse Owens outranks the story of Eulace Peacock by many orders of magnitude.
In Also-Ran-Land we are not only allowed to speculate upon the answers to “What If” questions, we are obliged to. So, it says here that, absent the injury, Peacock makes the Olympic team in ’36 and competes in Berlin. Peacock takes gold in the long jump. We’re giving Owens the two sprints, where Peacock takes silver. They share gold in the relay, which Peacock opens and Owens anchors. (Peacock’s style was more driven and grinding – great out of the blocks – whereas Owens was upright and regal, seeming to float above the track – perfect for that final unencumbered glide to the tape.)
They remain close friends after the Olympics. Instead of racing horses and dogs, they will stage events racing each other. Both athletes are honored by FDR before one of their joint exhibitions, where the public setting allows the president to overcome the cowardice, I mean political calculation that would otherwise counsel ignoring them.
In the iconic photos of the era, you will now see two African-American champions speeding past the grandstand, where the Fuhrer’s expression is even more stoic, his mouth more clenched, his eyes even more petty and angry, than they were in real life.