Carl Lewis is perhaps the most dominant track and field athlete in the last 15 years. The influence of his achievements in the sport has gone far beyond what might show up in any summary of his results. Lewis, along with manager Joe Douglas, has been one of the driving forces in the professionalization of the sport.
Lewis grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, and came from an athletic family. His mother—as Evelyn Lawler—made the 1951 Pan-Am team in the hurdles. When his father, Bill, died of cancer in 1987, Lewis buried his first Olympic gold with him. Both his parents had been active with the Willingboro Track Club. Sister Carol won notoriety before he did, as the nation's pre-eminent prep long jumper. A sprinter at age 7, a long jumper at 13, Carl didn't become famous until his senior year in high school. Then he improved his PR from 25-9 to 26-8 and ranked No. 5 in the world, all before moving to Houston to work with Tom Tellez, a collaboration that has now lasted a decade and a half. "This may sound funny," he said way back then, "but my goal is to be the best of all time."
Even before Lewis jumped past 27 feet, the yardstick for world-class status in the long jump, he had his eyes on the long jump World Record: "I'm capable of it."
The best of all time? Yes, though many would still vote for Jesse Owens on that count. The World Record-holder in the long jump? Not yet. Many feel that Lewis could have easily broken the Beamon record in his peak years if he had gone up to altitude. Lewis, wanting an untainted mark, refused.
He came closest to the record in Tokyo at the 1991 World Championships, dueling with Mike Powell in the long jump of the century. Lewis opened up that competition at 28-5 3/4, looking like pure gold. He improved to a wind-aided 28-113/4 in round three, and a windy 29-23/4 on his next attempt. Then Mike Powell flew out to 29-4 1/2, breaking Beamon's monolithic record by a centimeter. Lewis responded as only he could, with attempts of 29-1 3/4 and 29-0, but they weren't enough. He had produced five efforts that averaged 28-11 3/4 (better than his PR the day before). And not only did he see the record that had been "promised" to him taken away, he suffered his first LJ loss in 10 years and 65 meets.
Coming into Atlanta, the focus will be on Carl Lewis, the Olympic legend, the man with eight gold medals. A brief look at how he got them: 1980—At the Trials, the Houston yearling jumped 26-31/2w to make the Olympic team that went nowhere due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. He also ran 4th in the 100, making the fictional 4 x 100 squad.
1984—Eleven years earlier, Lewis had met his idol, Jesse Owens. In Los Angeles, he emulated him as no other fan could. On August 4, he won the 100 in 9.99, using an incredible finishing burst to overcome the strong start of teammate Sam Graddy. In the long jump (August 6), he went 28-1/4 to sew up the win on his first attempt. He fouled his next leap and passed on the rest, hoping to conserve effort for his remaining two events. The crowd booed him. "I was shocked at first," he said. "But after I thought about it I realized they were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that's flattering." The booing reflected badly upon American fans, but some point to that incident as the beginning of Lewis' difficulty in capturing the popularity that many had thought would be inevitable.
On August 8, Lewis appeared invincible in crushing the 200 field with his 19.80. He led an American sweep of the medals: "There's an added joy when you can share this feeling with your teammates." On August 11, Lewis joined with Graddy, Ron Brown and Calvin Smith to win the 4 x 100 gold in a World Record 37.83. It would be the only WR of the Games. "We wanted to give the home crowd a WR today," he said.
1988—In Seoul, Lewis attempted to repeat his four-gold performance, but events turned out as none would have predicted. On September 24 he ran the fastest 100 of his life, 9.92, but was soundly thrashed by Canadian Ben Johnson's 9.79. "I ran the best I could, and I'm pleased with the race," said an obviously disappointed Lewis.
On September 26, Lewis led the long jump after three rounds before getting into a dispute with officials over the jumping order. He claimed the schedule did not give him enough rest time, as he was competing in the 200m heats the same day. The other U.S. jumpers protested that he should get no special treatment. After 15 minutes of arguing, Lewis flew to 28-71/2 on his fourth attempt. That gave him another gold at the head of an American sweep.
On September 27, Lewis found out from Tellez that Johnson had tested positive for the steroid stanozolol and been stripped of the 100 win. The gold would go to Lewis, though much of the glory had been robbed from it.
The next day, September 28, Lewis got beat fair-and-square in the 200 final by training partner Joe DeLoach. Lewis ran 19.79, but DeLoach closed better to grab the gold in an Olympic Record 19.75. "I hated to come between Carl and his dream," said DeLoach.
On September 30, Lewis's hopes for a seventh gold medal fizzled, and he wasn't even on the track to do anything about it. In the heats of the 4 x 100, a bad pass between Calvin Smith and relay alternate Lee McNeill resulted in a disqualification for the U.S. Lewis had planned to run only the final.
1992—Another four golds wasn't an option in Barcelona. At the Trials in New Orleans, Lewis had finished 6th in the 100. At 200, he finished 4th, just 0.01 away from a team berth. He would compete only in the long jump and relay at the Games.
The long jump final on August 6 saw Lewis get revenge over Powell in their second meeting since Powell took the WR in Tokyo. He popped a first-round 28-51/2. Powell struggled in 2nd, and on his last attempt came close, missing by three centimeters. The relay final came two days later, and Lewis capped the best performance in history. Michael Marsh, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell joined with him for a World Record of 37.40.
In the three seasons since Barcelona, Lewis hasn't seemed himself, and the question most often heard is, "Is he over the hill?" His best performances since the last Olympics—10.02, 19.99, 28-5(A)—are competitive, but they are no longer the stuff of gold medals. He injured his hamstring jumping at the final Olympic Festival last summer. He has been troubled by other injuries and allergies. And he has his first gray hairs; he will be 35 at the time of the Olympics.
He told Fran Blinebury of the Houston Chronicle, "I haven't seemed to have the explosiveness in my running. I think that's been a result of my not getting in enough strength work in my fall training schedule.
"I hear people saying this is the end of the line for Carl. People are always saying what I'm going to do. But I'm telling you, I'll be there in Atlanta next summer. I feel like the long jump is still the one event where I have never reached my potential. It's in me."