Carl Lewis named SportsCentury athlete No. 12

King Carl had long, golden reign
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

Carl Lewis has always amazed us. By distinguishing himself in two seemingly simple actions -- jumping and running -- for the longest time, he became unlike any competitor. With his unsurpassed talent in the long jump and his speed in the sprints, he has gone places where no other track and field athlete has ever visited.

 Carl Lewis
 Carl Lewis capped his remarkable Olympics career by winning gold in the long jump at Atlanta in 1996.
He didn't lose in the long jump for a decade, winning 65 consecutive competitions. He won four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, equaling the 1936 accomplishment of his hero, Jesse Owens. He sped to a world record in the 100 meters. And then, when it appeared to be time for him to leave the jumping to younger athletes, he fooled us.

"You try to give a man a gold watch, and he steals your gold medal instead. You ask him to pass the torch, and he sets your Olympics on fire," Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly wrote about Lewis, at the age of 35, winning his fourth consecutive Olympic long jump in 1996.

That unexpected and stunning victory gave Lewis his ninth Olympic gold medal, tying him for the largest gold collection with U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz, Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina.

Yet, through all his triumphs, Lewis never came to be embraced by the country. He never became his sport's ambassador, his sport's Magic Johnson. He came across as haughty and arrogant, cold and calculating, aloof and abrasive. We like our heroes to display at least a minimum of modesty (see Michael Jordan), though it is not necessary to have the unpretentiousness of a Lou Gehrig.

The quest for perfection in most athletes is seen as a positive. In Lewis, it came across as a negative. "He rubs it in too much," said Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400 hurdles. "A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks."

That lack of humility never made up for Lewis being handsome and articulate, of having stayed clean in a dirty sport, of being a crusader against steroid use. Lewis, like Frank Sinatra, did it his way. But unlike Sinatra, he didn't have the charm to go with the talent.

"Lewis' liberating cool liberates him, not necessarily us," wrote Sports Illustrated's Kenny Moore. "We might understand him best as forged by the 100, holding on to his solitude until the pack falls away."

Frederick Carlton Lewis was born July 1, 1961, in Birmingham, Ala., and raised in Willingboro, N.J., a suburban, middle-class, racially mixed environment. Bill and Evelyn Lewis raised Carl and his three siblings with the premise that they didn't have to bend to authority just because it's authority. "We don't like outside influence," said Carl's older brother Cleve, "and we don't like control."

Carl was seven when Bob Beamon set the remarkable record - 29 feet, 2½ inches at the 1968 Olympics -- that would possess Lewis for his career. He competed in track on the town club his parents coached. When he was 10, he and a cousin had their picture taken with Owens, who advised him to have fun.

Small for his age (his younger sister Carol called him "Shorty") and shy, Lewis sprouted so suddenly at 15 (2½ inches in a month) that he had to walk with crutches for three weeks while his body adjusted. As a high school senior, his 26-8 leap broke the national prep long-jump record.

Lewis went to the University of Houston, instead of local track power Villanova, to become more independent. By 1981 he was No. 1 in the world in the 100 meters as well as the long jump. Two years later, he won the 100, 200 and long jump at the U.S. national championships, the first person to achieve this triple since Malcolm Ford in 1886.

The 6-foot-2, 173-pound Lewis had even grander plans for the 1984 Olympics: four gold medals. First came the 100 meters. With a burst that was clocked at 28 mph at the finish, Lewis won by an incredible eight feet -- the biggest margin in Olympic history -- in 9.9 seconds.

Lewis captured the long jump with his first leap -- 28-¼ into the wind. After fouling on his second attempt, Lewis, who had six races behind him and five more to go, passed on his last four jumps. The fans in Los Angeles didn't care about his heavy schedule; they booed him for not challenging Beamon's record.

Lewis won the 200 in a then-Olympic record 19.80 seconds and completed his quest by running a 8.94 anchor leg on the victorious 4x100 relay team.

But that L.A. gold didn't turn into as much green as Lewis had expected. The endorsements he had counted upon didn't come (at least in the U.S.; he did much better in Europe and Japan). Lewis was hurt by his own attitude, as well as by his agent comparing him to Michael Jackson.

No one had ever successfully defended either the long jump or 100-meter title in the Olympics. Lewis won both in 1988. Competing in the long jump final just 55 minutes after he qualified in the preliminaries of the 200, Lewis finished first with a leap of 28-7¼.

In the 100, Lewis was beaten to the finish line by Ben Johnson, who ran a remarkable 9.79 seconds. But the steroid-using Canadian was stripped of the gold medal for failing a drug test, and Lewis was moved up to first. His 9.92 seconds was listed as the world record.

Lewis, whose two-year winning streak in the 200 had been snapped at the Olympic Trials when he was beaten by training partner Joe DeLoach, was overtaken in the '88 Olympic 200 by DeLoach with 30 meters left and lost by .04 seconds. Lewis never got an opportunity to go for the gold in the 4x100 as the U.S. was disqualified in the first round (without Lewis) for an improper baton pass.

The 1991 World Championships in Tokyo were quite incredible -- in both the 100 meters and long jump. Lewis won one and lost the other. In the 100, six runners broke 10 seconds, with Lewis leading the pack after a mighty finish. "He passed us like we were standing still," said runner-up Leroy Burrell.

For the first time in his life, after going undefeated in the long jump for a decade, after winning six Olympic gold medals, Lewis had at last set an untainted, unshared world record (since broken) with his 9.86 seconds. "The best race of my life," Lewis said. "The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30."

But Lewis' 10-year unbeaten streak in the long jump came to an end five days later, even though he put together the greatest series of jumps in history. Lewis had never before reached 29 feet, and this day he did it three times, including 29-2¾ (wind-aided) and 29-1¼ (against the wind). But Mike Powell, who had lost 15 consecutive times to Lewis, unleashed the longest jump in history -- 29-4½.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Lewis exacted revenge on Powell, who had the record that Lewis craved, when he edged him by 1¼ inches with a leap of 28-5½. Lewis won his eighth gold medal by anchoring the record-setting 4x100 relay team.

But eight wasn't enough for him. Lewis, who qualified third in the 1996 Olympic Trials in the long jump, showed he still had one huge leap left in him. His 27-10¾ at Atlanta was his longest jump at sea level in four years.

"Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world at a rocking Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to win the Olympic gold medal in the long jump," Reilly wrote. "It was quite possibly his most impossible moment in an impossibly brilliant career."