Lewis' last hurrah, or just a minor setback?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Carl Lewis has run his course. He is a ceremonial sprinter now. A guy who raises goosebumps but not records. A magnificent memory. A graying shadow of his former self.

You would write him off entirely, except Carl Lewis is still Carl Lewis. If he wants to blame a cramp for a sluggish speed, you are inclined to indulge him. The great ones deserve the benefit of the doubt.

America's most accomplished sprinter finished a startling last in the U.S. Olympic Trials 100-meter final Saturday night, and it would appear he has finally been overtaken by old age. Lewis will be 35 years old in July, and his quest to become the first American sprinter to qualify for five Olympic teams has never seemed quite so quixotic.

Which is not to say that he won't yet make it. Laymen are advised to await an autopsy before declaring the King dead.

''There are 100 good things about today and one bad thing,'' Lewis said of Saturday's 10.21-second clocking. ''The good thing is that I am in good shape, good condition, but today my body just didn't give me the opportunity to perform. The first step, I didn't have a chance. I stepped forward with my left foot and then the right one hit the ground. I couldn't drive. I realized it after 40 meters (and) I eased off.

''There's nothing to be done about it. Even if I had run eight seconds, it would be over. I don't feel down. I'm frustrated because I know I'm ready to run fast.''

Everyone has a bad day

A sprinter of Lewis' stature should be allowed one of these days every decade or so. But once you've won eight gold medals, anything less resembles rigor mortis. Only last month, Lewis ran 100 meters in a wind-aided 9.94 on the Olympic track. Maybe he has lost it in the interim. Or maybe his cramp was merely a cramp.

''I'm not going to beat myself to death over this,'' he said. ''Things like this have happened before. I know I'm in shape to run as fast as anyone's run. Things happen, though, for a reason. In '92, I didn't make the team in the 100 meters, but I ended up jumping better. I can sit and mope but that would be wasted effort. Instead, I can celebrate that I have two events left.''

Lewis has won three Olympic long jump gold medals, and begins pursuit of a fourth today in preliminary qualifying at the trials. The long jump remains Lewis' best event, and represents his strongest shot at making the U.S. team. Failing that, Lewis would have to qualify in the 200 meters, or be appointed to a role on the 400-meter relay team.

''I hope he never leaves,'' said Dennis Mitchell, who won Saturday's 100 in 9.2 seconds. ''Carl takes me to another level. . . . Whenever I've run the best I possibly can, whenever I've done some very unbelievable things, whenever people have counted me out, Carl has, most of the time, been in those races. Carl, to me, is a legend. Carl always motivates me. To beat Carl on his best day or his worst day is an honor.''

Passing the torch?

Figuratively, if not literally, the two sprinters have tended to keep their distance. They had hardly spoken in three years until shortly before Saturday's semifinal heat.

''We kept looking at each other out of the corners of our eyes and we didn't know whether to say anything,'' Mitchell said Sunday. ''Carl just stopped and said, 'Dennis, come here. I want to talk to you.' ''

Mitchell came away from their conversation thinking Lewis was either trying to pass him a torch or con him. He was not sure which.

''I felt like Carl didn't think he was going to run well in the final,'' Mitchell said. ''But I didn't want to think that. I kind of put it in the back of my mind because it could have been a ploy to relax me.''

Carl Lewis is capable of anything. At least he used to be.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 17, 1996.