Best Olympic athletes: Carl Lewis fast-tracked to superstardom

Carl Lewis set out to be the first athletic global celebrity, a decision that divided many, but defined his career.

Carl Lewis takes a victory lap around the track of the Los Angeles Coliseum Saturday, August 4, 1984 after winning the gold medal in the 100-meter dash.(AP Photo, The Los Angeles Times/Skeeter Hagler)
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Carl Lewis set out to be the first athletic global celebrity, a decision that divided many, but defined his career, writes Paul Oberjuerge

Best Olympic Athletes

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Carl Lewis aspired to be a pop celebrity to rival Michael Jackson and an Olympic hero like Jesse Owens. He settled for being the greatest track and field athlete in the history of the Summer Games.

He won nine gold medals from four Olympiads, five while sprinting and four while jumping, a display of versatility and longevity in the fast-twitch forms of endeavour still unparalleled. But it is only with the advantage of lengthening hindsight that Lewis's uncanny ability to alienate an audience has been overpowered by his achievements.

Even before his Olympic debut, at Los Angeles in 1984, he told Time magazine: "There are going to be some absolutely unheard of things coming from me."

In an era when the idea of the amateur sportsman was still valued, if no longer a reality, he outlined to Sports Illustrated his plans to make so much money from his athletics career that he would never hold a real job. His agent predicted that the flamboyant Lewis, who also fancied himself a potential actor or politician, would rival Jackson as a bankable pop-culture figure.

Lewis's cool calculations of what Olympic gold could mean for his earning power and his supreme self-confidence rankled, inside the sport as well as outside. Edwin Moses, elder statesman of the 400m hurdles, said: "A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks."

While running and jumping, however, Lewis rarely was wanting. At Los Angeles, he delivered on his announced goal of matching the feats of his highly esteemed compatriot Owens, who at Berlin in 1936 had won gold in the 100m and 200m, the long jump and the 4x100m relay.

But even in victory, Lewis was unable to get it quite right. He won the long jump on his first attempt, but with five races still ahead on his programme he passed up his final four jumps, and a crowd that had hoped to see him break Bob Beamon's 1968 record of 8.90m booed him.

After that Olympics no major American company hired Lewis as a spokesman, reflecting the deep public ambivalence towards him. "He became so big and so hyped that the bandwagon became unappealing before people even started jumping on it," the sports agent Brad Hunt told The Times in 1991.

"I don't think the sporting press, and that's where your image starts, wanted the Olympic hero to be Michael Jackson. They wanted the Olympic hero to be Jesse Owens, who up until that time was the symbol of Olympia, the man who did it for the glory of the country and the thrill of participation."

Lewis was perceptive enough to understand where he had gone wrong: "I was supposed to be humble and nice and say, 'Thank you for coming out' and be totally accessible. I'm not supposed to be able to speak clearly, and decipher what's going on in the media. I'm supposed to be the typical amateur who's 22 and scared to death and can't believe he won the Olympics."

Lewis set about trying to win over the American consumer by reprising Owens a second time. He planned to win the same four golds at Seoul in 1988, which would be an even greater accomplishment than his four in Los Angeles because no champion in the Olympic 100m or 200m had won the race again four years later.

He was beaten in the 100m by Ben Johnson, the Canadian who clocked a world-record time of 9.79 seconds. But Johnson failed a drug test and Lewis was awarded the gold; he remains the only man to win the event twice, and his time of 9.92secs eventually was recognised as a world record.

He also won the long jump, but his plans for four golds foundered when his training partner Joe DeLoach defeated him in the 200m final and the US 4x100m team was disqualified in a preliminary heat.

In 1992, it seemed as if he might be a spent force, at age 31. He failed to survive the US Olympic trials in the 100m and 200m and was eligible only for the relay and long jump at Barcelona. Perhaps invigorated at the thought of such a light workload, Lewis won gold in both events.

His most remarkable gold medal was his last. Having qualified only for the long jump, he won it for the fourth time with a leap of 8.50m, a remarkable effort at age 35 and a highlight of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Lewis, however, contrived to spoil that moment, too. He agitated for inclusion on the US 4x100m relay team, well aware that, in 1996, no one had won 10 gold medals in the Olympics. He planned to be the first.

However, he had not made the team as a sprinter and the US coach ignored Lewis's pleas. The 4x100m went off without him, and the US finished second to Canada. Perhaps Lewis might have helped, after all.

The strained relations between Lewis and the US public followed him into retirement. But the International Olympic Committee voted him Sportsman of the Century, and Sports Illustrated chose him as their Olympian of the Century.

In long reflection his achievements come into focus. Nine golds total, matched in athletics only by Paavo Nurmi, a 1920s distance runner.

The image of Lewis powering down the track, head back, knees high, his flattened palms slashing the air, or of Lewis sailing enormous distances above the long-jump pit crowd out the miscalculations of a long career.

The top 10 Olympic track and field stars

1. Carl Lewis, United States, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 – All he did was win. His nine golds and four in one event, the long jump, remain unsurpassed.

2. Usain Bolt, Jamiaca, 2008 – Never has one man made such a shambles of Olympic sprinting, winning the 100m and 200m by huge margins and setting world records in both.

3. Florence Griffith-Joyner, United States, 1988 – The powerful sprinter prefigured Bolt in the way she destroyed the competition. Her world records in the 100m and 200m still stand.

4. Emile Zatopec, Czechoslovakia, 1948, 1952 – Pulled off a golden triple in 1952, winning the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. Also won gold in the 5km in 1948.

5. Jesse Owens, United States, 1936 – Took gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump at Berlin 1936, demolishing the Nazi idea of "Aryan" racial superiority.

6. Fanny Blankers-Koen, Holland, 1948 – The 30-year-old mother of two won gold in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay, most by a woman in athletics at one Olympics.

7. Al Oerter, United States, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 – The discus thrower was the first to win four athletics medals in one event.

8. Daley Thompson, United Kingdom, 1980, 1984, 1988 – One of only two men to twice win the decathlon (the American Bob Mathias is the other), considered the zenith of athletics competition.

9. Paavo Nurmi, Finland, 1920, 1924, 1928 – Won nine golds in middle-distance running, at distances from 1,500m to 10,000m. Only Carl Lewis won as many athletics golds.

10. Michael Johnson, United States, 1992, 1996, 2000 – Achieved an unprecedented 200m-400m double in 1996, setting a world record in the 200m. Also took a 4x400m relay gold in 1992 and the 400m again in 2000.


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About this series

One year from London 2012, we select the all-time best athletes in the major Olympic sports