With spectacular, Lewis rates 'fastest human' tag

Phil Jackman

August 26, 1991|By Phil Jackman

It's really taking no liberties to refer to it as "The Race of the Century," Carl Lewis winning the 100 meters at the World Championships in Tokyo yesterday.

It seems like only yesterday when footballer Bob Hayes, in a memorable explosion of speed and power, set the world record of 10 seconds flat over this same track as an Olympic gold medalist. No fewer than six runners blew by that mark yesterday, Lewis leading the way with his 9.86 clocking.

Put another way, Carl was motoring along at 30 mph when he leaned ahead of friend and rival Leroy Burrell at the tape.

Usually, the title "World's Fastest Human" is reserved for the Olympic champion in the 100, no matter what the time or circumstances. But there can be no argument with Lewis being assigned the label on an almost permanent basis as two-time defending Olympic champion and, if justice be served, three-time world champ.

After having seen Carl win countless long jump competitions with his last clutch leap or make up seemingly insurmountable deficits while anchoring relay teams, it can't really be stated that what he did yesterday came as a surprise.

To be sure, Burrell has beaten him consistently during the past year and others have picked up on the habit, too. Worse maybe is the fact Lewis has sometimes seemed removed as his interests tended to book-writing, a musical career, fashion and other actions that can only be described as strange. At the Goodwill Games last summer, he gave the impression of being a visitor from outer space.

How easy it has been to all but write him off, at least in the mind's eye, at age 30.

After impressive efforts in a series of heats, however, it became apparent Lewis was back. Standing in back of his blocks immediately before the final, it became apparent Lewis was a winner. TV viewers could all but sense he was enjoying the mounting pressure while, three lanes away, race favorite Burrell gave the impression of a guy hyperventilating.

Hey, kid, you're good, but it's a whole different ballgame when you get into the realm of historic extravaganzas like this.

This "world's fastest human" business got started back during the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, when Charley Paddock, running out of foot holes kicked out of the cinder track, breezed home in 10-4/5 seconds. Then, they timed runners just as they have always timed horses, in fifth of seconds, which is appropriate considering Charley's last name. For the next few decades, such men as Percy Williams, Eddie Tolan and Jesse Owens carried on the tradition by winning the sprint double in the Games.

To understand the pull of the century as the erstwhile premier event of the Olympics, one must remember that track and field was the marquee event of the Games right up until 1972 and Munich. It was easy to sustain as winners Harrison Dillard (1948), Lindy Remigino (1952), Bobby Morrow (1956), Armin Hary (1960), Hayes (1964) and Jimmy Hines (1968) all added interesting stories and mystique to the tradition.

There was a lull while marathoners, gymnasts, swimmers, politics, terrorists and boycotting move to the fore. Then F. Carlton Lewis returned the focus to the 100 with his unbelievable run getting under way a decade ago. He achieved the No. 1 ranking in the world at age 20 in 1981 and won three gold medals at the first World Championships two years later in Helsinki.

Four gold medals and the most-lopsided victory ever (by eight feet) in the century followed at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Remember the almost daily yarns about his assault on the records of the legendary Jesse Owens? Three more golds at the Worlds in Rome were followed by another win in the -- in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, when Ben Johnson was found to be, uh, operating under the influence.

Carl had handled Ben easily for a couple of years, winning seven straight meetings and classifying him just inside the top 20 in the world. Suddenly, Johnson won five of six and Carl would ask tongue firmly planted in cheek, "How did he get so good so fast?"

Adverse publicity or no, it served to keep the event and its participants in the center ring of the sport. And, on cue, Lewis took it from there as another Olympic year looms around the corner.

Once again the approachable, cooperative, gracious sort he had been during his ascendancy, Carl could not help but marvel "at running the fastest race of my life at 30 years old. It's the happiest day of my career."

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