Lewis savors 9th, final gold medal

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Carl Lewis left the long jump pit as if it were ablaze. His feet struck the sand for a magical moment, and then he sprung from it with hot-coals haste.

''It's funny,'' Lewis said Monday night. ''You want your Olympic experiences to go on forever, but I sure wanted that competition to end. . . . I was thinking, 'Let's fast forward and get out of here.' ''

On a night Lewis might have wanted time to stand still, it could not move swiftly enough to suit him. He won his fourth Olympic long jump title on his third try, but this was a competition that ran six rounds. For one long, agonizing hour, America's greatest track star would wonder whether he was still good enough.

Lewis' jump of 27 feet, 10 3/4 inches was some 17 1/4 inches short of Mike Powell's world record. It was less than any of Lewis' own winning leaps in the Summer Games of Los Angeles and Seoul and Barcelona. Compared to some of his more indelible performances, these were footprints on the beach.

The tide, however, has not yet turned.

Can't catch Carl

Twelve years after his giant leaps in LA, Lewis remains the world's premier pressure jumper. He is 35 years old, and reduced to a long-jump specialist after nearly two decades as a dominant sprinter, and yet the kids don't catch him when it really counts. They look at Carl Lewis and laugh at themselves.

''I'm 29,'' said Joe Greene, the bronze medalist. ''But my body feels like its 60 from jumping and jumping. For Carl to do what he's done is fantastic. He's doing it at 35 (years old) into headwinds. That's ridiculous.''

Monday's gold medal was the ninth of Lewis' Olympic career, and equaled discus thrower Al Oerter's previously unprecedented feat of winning the same event in four successive Olympic Games.

''You're making it very difficult,'' Oerter told Lewis afterward. ''This means I have to come back in the year 2000.''

Lewis assured his rivals Monday night he would not be back for the Summer Games of Sydney, but he once made a similar vow about Atlanta. For at least the last two years, the world has been telling Lewis he was washed up, but he's never been a good listener.

''I remember starting out in August after the World Championships last year when I was injured,'' he said. ''I said to myself, 'This can't be the end. There has to be more.' So I got back in the weight room and started to work hard. . . .

''This ninth gold was the most special because it needed the most focus, and it took the most pain, and it couldn't have happened without a ton of support.''

Everyone loves him

People who didn't think Lewis could make another comeback were nonetheless moved by his attempt. Fans he had lost in Los Angeles by not reaching harder for records were eventually regained by simple, sustained excellence. Whenever he is finished competing - at this very moment or after the millennium - Carl Lewis must be acknowledged as one of America's two greatest track athletes. Only Jesse Owens belongs on the same level.

Joe Greene understood this as he took the last shot at Lewis' mark Monday night. He was an American, jumping in America, and yet he recognized as he ran down the runway that he could only screw this story up.

''I felt they were with me,'' Greene said of his final approach, ''but Carl Lewis is Carl Lewis. If I had been in the stands, I would have been saying, 'I hope Joe does good, but I hope Carl does better.' ''

When Greene fouled on his final attempt, Lewis jumped to his feet and ran to embrace his rival. Then he made his victory lap around the Olympic Stadium, and this time he lingered.

''I want to settle down, let this sink in, and make sure this really happened,'' he said. ''When I look at my clock tomorrow, I want to make sure it is the next day.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 30, 1996.