Lewis competes with history, reputation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - This is our last chance to come to terms with Carl Lewis. His place in history is unimpeachable. Perhaps it is time he made some headway in our hearts.

America's most accomplished modern Olympian has left his countrymen curiously cold. He has earned eight gold medals in the sprints and the long jump, but has yet to be accorded as much stature as his statistics. He is acknowledged as opposed to admired; respected rather than revered.

At least that's the way it has worked so far.

Lewis might change some of that this summer. He will be competing for a place on the U.S. Olympic team at the age of 35 and in the unusual role of an underdog. If he is to mount another Olympic medals stand, it will have to be viewed not only as a triumph of speed, but of spirit.

"I've had a great career, but a lot of that career, things were easy," Lewis said Friday at the Olympic Media Summit. "People definitely look at me differently (as he has aged), and more and more people have become more positive about what I do. They understand what it's like to be older and still compete.

"There are people out there who hope I win 20 gold medals. Of course, there are people who hope I stumble off this podium and break my leg."

Tarnished gold

Carl Lewis will never win over all the fans he lost in Los Angeles in 1984. He won four gold medals at those Summer Games, but was widely pilloried on style points. He was an extraordinary talent with careless handlers, rapacious sponsors and, it was perceived, mercenary motives. His agent vowed he would be bigger than Michael Jackson, and his actions appeared calculated for commercial gain instead of athletic achievement.

He won the long jump, but was booed for not taking all of his allotted jumps. The crowd wanted Lewis to lay siege to Bob Beamon's world record. King Carl elected to conserve his energies for his sprints.

This single strategic decision, debatable and yet defensible, has had an undue influence on Lewis' image. Many of the same people who complain about coaches who "pour it on," were put out that Lewis would not attempt to pad his insurmountable lead.

"For me to say I haven't made mistakes would be ludicrous," Lewis said Friday. "Did I say things I shouldn't have said? Absolutely. In 1984, I was 22 years old. For nine months, my face was on the cover of a magazine the whole time. Every time I went to a grocery store, my face was looking back at me. I was a kid . . . I've grown as a person."

Maturity is a mixed blessing for an athlete. Before Britain's 32-year-old Linford Christie took the Olympic 100 meters in 1992, no man had won that race past the age of 28. If Carl Lewis is still competitive at 35, he will force us to reevaluate the ravages of age, and the reputation of this athlete.

Finding motivation

Can he do it? Not since 1991 has Lewis run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. He finished sixth at that distance in last year's nationals, and admits he would have abandoned his track career by now if the '96 Games were being held outside the United States.

Yet it would be dangerous to discount him just yet. Lewis has trimmed his body fat from 6 percent to 3 percent since last year, and has embraced weight training for the first time. The newfound strength has not yet produced additional speed, but 100-meter record-holder Leroy Burrell thinks Lewis' main obstacle is motivation.

"Carl has a difficult time getting up for meets," Burrell says.

Presumably, this will not be a problem at the Olympics. If he can win two more gold medals, Lewis would equal the Olympic record of 10 set by American Ray Ewry between 1900 and 1908. This is a long shot, to be sure, but certainly worth a try.

"I don't have time for the people who say, 'You're embarrassing your legacy, you're tarnishing your name,' " Lewis said Friday. "If I did everything based on my legacy, I wouldn't be here. I would be afraid to compete."

Carl Lewis has nothing to lose this summer except his image problems. What he can gain is a lot more than gold.

Published April 27, 1996.