E.R. (Eric) Prabhakar, who died on Saturday at Bangalore at the age of 86, was a sportsman of extraordinary competence. Athletics was his bailiwick, but he excelled in hockey and cricket too at the collegiate level.
The highpoint of Prabhabar's athletics career was the Olympic Games in London. In the first for independent India, Prabhakar represented the country in the 100 metres sprint with distinction. He reached the the quarterfinals in a time of 10.3 seconds, a mere 0.3 seconds away from the medal.
Not many of this generation might be aware of the achievements in athletics, or his academic excellence. He returned a time of 10.8s even in 1944, and was the national sprint champion (100 and 200) from 1942-48.
Born on February 23, 1925, in a family renowned for its achievements in sports and in the sphere of education — his brother E. C. P. Prabhakar played for the State in cricket, hockey and tennis and was a top rated bureaucrat — Eric etched a brilliant career in sport and in academics at the Madras Christian College. He was the icon of MCC and the toast of the college in numerous competitions. His time of 10.7s remained on the record books for years.
Prabhakar's famous contemporary in the Forties was the triple jumper, Henry Rebello of Loyola. Interestingly, both figured in the 1948 London Olympics.
Eric had no peers in the state, or in the country, in sprints from 1942 in the then undivided India. In fact, his first triumph came at Lahore.
A graduate in Economics Prabhakar spurned a chance to enter the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He however accomplished a rare distinction of earning the prestigious the Rhode's Scholarship at Oxford as the first ever Indian.
At Oxford, Eric pursued athletics with unalloyed passion that brought him into contact with several top stars. One such was Dr. Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four minute barrier for the mile and a darling of British athletics.
Eric, who captained MCC in hockey, played for Oxford without losing his focus in athletics.
Selected for an UN assignment, Eric served as Director of UNESCO in Paris for nearly two decades enunciating educational programmes for school children that won acclaim all over.
After return to India, Eric worked for a leading corporate firm in Chennai. He continued to evince keen interest in athletics and authored quite a few schemes for promotion. His scholarly work, “The Way to Athletics Gold,” with an introduction by Dr. Bannister is an excellent manual for coaches of any era.
Eric, who is survived by wife and three sons, lived the life of an exemplary sportsman. Competitive athletics in India owes a great deal to this trend-setter in sprint running.
“He was a remarkable sportsman,” observed Walter Dawaram, President, Tamil Nadu Athletics Association in a tribute. “He was the best known name in Madras Christian College when I was a student long after Eric had left the institution. His contribution to athletics was significant,” Dawaram added.
The life and times of Eric Prabhakar may be behind us. But his indelible imprint on Indian athletics can never be obliterated.