Carl Lewis

In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Carl Lewis (born 1961) became the first athlete, since Jesse Owens in 1936, to win four gold medals in Olympic competition. In 1996 he competed in the long jump event at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, winning his fourth gold medal in that event.

Qualifying for the United States Olympic team every four years since 1980, athlete Carl Lewis has won nine Olympic gold medals in four different events and held world records in the 100-meter dash and the long jump. Lewis's long domination at the Olympics and other international events is particularly remarkable in light of his sport of choice—track and field. The grueling demands of sprinting, long jumping, and relays demand youth and vigor. Lewis has defied not only the stopwatch but the march of time and has become, in the words of fellow athlete Mike Powell in Sports Illustrated, "the best track and field athlete ever."

Lewis is the first athlete since Jesse Owens to win four gold medals in track during the same Olympic Games. The circumstances surrounding those victories were very different, however. Owens returned to the United States in 1936 a national hero and retired from competition. Lewis, on the other hand, received boos from the crowd at the 1984 Olympics and earned a cold shoulder from big business and fans alike. The rough treatment he received—stemming, he has claimed, from unfair press coverage—only sharpened his resolve to continue competing. From 1984 through 1996 he sprinted and jumped on a world-class level, as ever-younger opponents gnawed at his heels.

New York Times Magazine correspondent Trip Gabriel observed that Carl Lewis "has embodied the heartbreak of fulfilled promise. He was, by any measurement, the greatest track-and-field athlete of all time, yet Americans refused to warm to him. He won four gold medals at Los Angeles, yet he emerged from the [1984] Games less popular than he was before they began. The public found him arrogant and overly calculating in his attempts to cash in on his victories in a supposedly amateur sport." Since then, according to Gabriel, both Lewis and his fans have matured. The athlete "has become revered, as much for his longevity as for anything else." Public reverence for the athlete translated to hearty cheers in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 as Lewis—at the age of 31—won Olympic gold in the long jump and the 400-meter relay.

A Lifetime of Dedication

"I always had the feeling that I was born to do something. I'm convinced that God has given me the talent," Lewis asserted in the Philadelphia Daily News. Born on July 1, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama, Frederick Carlton Lewis is the son of two star athletes who attended Tuskegee Institute. His father, Bill, ran track and played football; his mother, Evelyn, was a world-class hurdler who represented the United States at the 1951 Pan-American Games. By the time Carl was born, the third of four children, the elder Lewises were coaching young athletes in track and field events.

When Carl was still a youngster, his family moved to Willingboro, New Jersey. There his parents worked as high school teachers and founded the Willingboro Track Club. Ray Didinger noted in a Philadelphia Daily News profile that Lewis's parents considered their youngest son "the third-best athlete in a family of four" and encouraged him to pursue music lessons instead. Carl had other ideas. He went out into his back yard, measured off twenty-nine feet, two-and-a-half inches, and stuck a strip of tape on the ground. The distance was one that even the world's best athletes could not meet, but young Carl Lewis began jumping toward it with singular determination.

"Carl didn't just go after his goals, he stalked them," Bill Lewis commented in the Philadelphia Daily News. "He was a serious kid. There was nothing flighty about him. Some kids want to be a fireman one day, a movie star the next. Carl set his mind on track and that was it. He said he wanted to be the best, period."

Striving to pass his older brothers Mack and Cleve—and even his younger sister Carol—Lewis began high school predicting that he would achieve a distance of 25 feet in the long jump. Skinny and small, he lost far more meets than he won. "I believed setting goals was the only way I could get where I wanted to go," Lewis explained in the Philadelphia Daily News. "I studied track. Being around my parents and the club helped a lot. But I knew, in the final analysis, it was up to me. I never lacked for confidence. Even when I was younger, when I was losing a lot, I felt it was only a matter of time before I was the best." Indeed, Lewis was once singled out at a Philadelphia track meet for youngsters by Jesse Owens himself, who urged the other children to follow the example of "this spunky little guy."

A late bloomer, Lewis finally reached his goal of a 25-foot jump during his junior year at Willingboro High School. In 1978 he won at the national junior championships with a 9.3-second time in the 100-meter run and a 25-foot 9-inch long jump. He also received an All-American ranking in the 200-meter sprint. When he graduated from Willingboro in 1979, Lewis was the top-ranked high school track athlete in the country. The years of dedicated practice, the quiet self-confidence, and the sense of destiny had set the stage for a phenomenal track and field career.

"King Carl"

In the autumn of 1979 Lewis entered the University of Houston on an athletic scholarship. There he worked with coach Tom Tellez, an expert on body mechanics who suggested improvements in Lewis's style of jumping. Lewis was perceived as a natural talent who could also implement new strategies without suffering setbacks. After just one year of college he qualified for the 1980 Olympic team and was one of the many athletes who saw opportunity pass them by when former President Jimmy Carter cancelled the United States' participation in the Games.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Lewis solidified his top national ranking in the long jump and the 100-meter dash at the 1981 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indoor championships. He was the first athlete to win two events at an NCAA championship and was awarded the Amateur Athletic Union's Sullivan Award.

In 1982 Lewis left the University of Houston to compete under the auspices of the Santa Monica Track Club in California. Coach Tellez followed him west and continued to work closely with him. By 1983 Lewis had become a winner in four categories: long jump, 100-meter run, 200-meter run, and 400-meter relay. He notified the world that he was ready for the 1984 Olympics by winning three gold medals at the track and field world championships in Helsinki, Finland, in 1983. During the early months of 1984 he set an indoor world record by long jumping twenty-eight feet, ten-and-a-half inches. With speed, consistency, and desire, Lewis looked like a conquering hero who would return from the 23rd Olympics covered with gold medals.

America loves its heroes, and the press was quick to descend upon the young track star who predicted with all confidence that he would win four events in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984. Unfortunately for Lewis, his confidence was perceived in some quarters as arrogance—he showed up late for press conferences, made candid remarks about how much money he hoped to earn, and questioned the whole business of amateur athletics. Brad Hunt, a sports agent, told the New York Times Magazine that Lewis "became so big and so hyped that the bandwagon became unappealing before people even started jumping on it." Hunt noted that a member of Lewis's entourage had hinted that the athlete might someday earn as much as singer Michael Jackson. "I don't think the sporting press, and that's where your image starts, wanted the Olympic hero to be Michael Jackson," Hunt said. "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 went to the 1984 Olympics under intense media scrutiny, and he fulfilled his astounding predictions. He won a gold medal in the 100-meter sprint with a time of 9.99 seconds. His performance in the second event, the long jump, drew jeers from the crowd when he decided to let his first leap of twenty-eight feet, one quarter inch stand and pass on the last four tries to avoid the risk of injury. No one beat him at that distance, and he took a second gold medal. For his third, Lewis set an Olympic record with a 19.8-second run in the 200-meter race. Last but not least, the athlete anchored the 400-meter relay team to an Olympic record victory at 37.83 seconds.

One might expect fame and fortune to follow such exploits, but Lewis found himself nicknamed "King Carl" in the press. A lucrative product endorsement contract with Nike was cancelled, and no others followed in the United States. Track is a worldwide sport, however, and Lewis fared far better in Europe and Japan, where he became a hero. He continued to participate in important indoor and outdoor track meets, consistently winning the 100-meter dash and the long jump. Stung by negative press coverage, which he asserted was often twisted and biased, he refused to conform to others' expectations. "I was supposed to be humble and nice and say, 'Thank you for coming out,' and be totally accessible," the athlete was quoted as saying in the New York Times Magazine. "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."

A new cloud appeared on Lewis's horizon in 1985: Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who began to beat Lewis steadily in the 100-meter sprint. Lewis came to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, as the underdog in the 100-meter event, a position that helped his media image immensely. Initially he ran second in Seoul to Johnson, who finished the 100-meter in record time. Lewis was given the gold medal by default soon afterward, when it was revealed that Johnson had used anabolic steroids. Lewis earned a second gold in Seoul for his signature event, the long jump.

Six gold medals in two successive Olympic games did little to improve "King Carl's" status with the media. As Gabriel put it, after the Johnson scandal at the 1988 Olympics, "Lewis … was not embraced as a conquering hero. To a large extent, his own victory was seen as tarnished, and he became swept up in the apparent blanket condemnation of the sport." Worse, Lewis himself was charged with steroid use by a former opponent, whose accusations were printed in the prestigious German periodical Stern. Lewis vehemently denied the charges—and sued the magazine—while willingly submitting to drug tests after numerous races. A staunch opponent of steroid use, Lewis has never been linked to drug use by anything but unsubstantiated rumor.

Vindicated in 1992

By 1992 Lewis had won eight world championship gold medals and had dominated the long jump for ten years. Age began to take a toll on the athlete, however. For a decade he had chased the outdoor long jump world record of Bob Beamon, only to watch Mike Powell reach that pinnacle at the 1991 world track and field championships in Tokyo, Japan. Lewis made four personal best jumps at the same meet but still could not beat Powell. The low point for Lewis came at the 1992 Olympic trials, where he failed to make the cut for the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. He did qualify for the long jump and the 400-meter relay, and a week later he discovered that he had been suffering from a low-grade sinus infection.

Lewis experienced something at the 1992 Olympic trials that had long eluded him—total acceptance from an American crowd. He was given a standing ovation in New Orleans as his second-place finish in the long jump qualified him for an Olympic berth. Going into the Olympics as an underdog in his favorite event, Lewis remained true to form, predicting victory and more: appreciation, finally, for his decade of accomplishments. "I'm only 30 years old and I've had to deal with more than most people in an entire lifetime," he told the New York Times Magazine. "I went through the Olympics and people tried to put me down and tear me down and force me to retire. And for some silly reason I kept on running and ignored them, and now I've made it and I'm reaping the benefits of that perseverance. I'm publicly bigger than I've ever been, and it's a great thing to go through a career and be at this stage and everybody loves you the most."

The admiration of fans came showering down in Barcelona in 1992, when Lewis beat Powell in the long jump to earn his seventh gold medal, and then anchored the 400-meter relay for an eighth. Sports Illustrated contributor Gary Smith wrote, "In [Lewis's] early years as a world-class athlete, there was sometimes almost a desperation in the way he made sure you knew this about him: He was not just a trackman. He was limitless. But in the end there was one thing he couldn't escape: his own talent. One by one, all the trappings that were supposed to make him unique fell away like leaves, leaving only this rare, bare-trunk truth: Excelling at the simplest things—running and jumping—for the longest time is what has made Carl Lewis unlike any athlete who ever lived."

Following the 1992 Olympics, Lewis' performance began to suffer a bit, prompting speculation that he may be feeling his age. In August 1993 he won only one medal at the World Track and Field Championships, a bronze in the 200 meters. He blamed it on a back injury he had suffered in an automobile accident in February, and did make a bit of a comeback in early 1994, helping his Santa Monica Track Club teammates to a world record (1:18.68) in the 4x200 relay, and clocking a 10.04 in the 100 meters at the Houston Invitational in May.

But by 1995 Lewis was being beaten consistently by the young up-and-comers in the track world. "When you've been to 14 Mount SAC Relays or 13 of this meet or 11 of this, you don't approach it the same way," he told Sports Illustrated. "I have a difficult time getting focused for some of the meets I've been to so many times. But the one thing I've kept is my enthusiasm for training and for major meets." But Lewis's status as a world-class athlete was in question in some circles. The top sprinter of 1994, Dennis Mitchell, told the Chicago Tribune, as quoted by Sports Illustrated, "Right now, all the other sprinters in the world aren't worried about Carl at all."

Lewis plans to keep competing in track and field events as long as he can continue to win. He even participated in the 1996 Olympic trials, and won a chance to participate in the long jump—and compete for his fourth straight gold in the event—at the Atlanta Games. On July 29, 1996, he easily won the top medal with a distance of twenty-seven feet, ten and three-quarters inches. He has no intention of hanging onto the sport until much younger—and less talented—runners pass him by. With endorsement contracts from Panasonic, among others, and hefty appearance fees, he is a wealthy man who plans to retire and perhaps run for political office in Houston. His experiences as world and Olympic champion along with his Christian faith have helped Lewis develop a philosophy about his singular career. "Everybody has difficult times," he remarked in the Philadelphia Daily News. "If you expect life to be wonderful and everybody to love you and everything special to happen to you all the time, then you're not really dealing with the real world."

Eight of Lewis's Olympic gold medals are still in his possession. The ninth—his first, for the 100-meter sprint, was buried with his father Bill in May of 1988. "My father was most proud of the 100," Lewis revealed in the Philadelphia Daily News. "More than anything, he wanted me to win that medal. … Now he has it and he'll always have it."

Further Reading on Carl Lewis

Lewis, Carl, and Jeffrey Marx, Inside Track: My Professional Life in Amateur Track and Field, S and S Trade, 1990.

The Olympics Factbook: A Spectator's Guide to the Winter and Summer Games, Visible Ink Press, 1992.

Esquire, April 1983.

Inside Sports, August 1984.

Newsweek, August 20, 1984; July 27, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, June 17, 1984; July 19, 1992.

Time, June 17, 1996.

Philadelphia Daily News, July 26, 1984; August 2, 1984; January 25, 1985; July 23, 1985; June 3, 1988; June 25, 1992; August 7, 1992.

Sports Illustrated, August 17, 1992.

Washington Post Magazine, July 22, 1984.

    Post a comment