Losing long jump may win Lewis friends in long run

MIKE LITTWIN

September 01, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Carl Lewis wept.

He wiped the tears from his eyes -- tears of disbelief, tears of disappointment -- when, from nowhere, Mike Powell stole the long jump record that was supposed to be his and broke Lewis' 10-year winning streak in the process Friday at the World Championships in Tokyo.

It used to be that real men didn't cry. Tears knocked Ed Muskie right out of a presidential race, but when Ron Reagan would get glassy-eyed at shopping center openings, suddenly it was OK for men to express their feelings damply.

Lewis lost. Lewis cried. Superman is human.

And maybe, just maybe, Lewis will win for losing. He sure lost a lot while winning. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of Lewis' remarkable career -- and he is the greatest track-and-field performer of all time -- is that Lewis has been so consistently unpopular. We just plain don't like the guy.

At the 1984 Olympics, when Lewis won four gold medals and all America was ready to embrace him as a hero, a famous sports columnist of the day wrote: "Carl Lewis, I hate him. Get him out of here."

He is bright, attractive and a gamer. He has brains and heart. But he also has a certain something that you can't put your finger on exactly, something that puts people off. A certain smugness. It's not ordinary arrogance, because many athletes are arrogant and beloved simultaneously. Maybe it's the idea that he knows that you know that he knows he's great. Maybe it was because his manager said before the '84 Olympics that Lewis would be bigger than Michael Jackson. Maybe it was the record he put out. Or when we learned that all his rivals seemed to hate him. I saw a 60-yard indoor race once where Lewis lost and athletes all over the gym began to applaud.

For me, a defining moment came in a news conference after the '84 Olympics. He was seated with his mother, his father and his sister, discussing his week in glowing detail. Everything went right, he said. He thanked his family for their support. He said he wouldn't have changed a thing. What he didn't say was that his sister, Carol, who is his biggest supporter and who had been a favorite in the long jump, had failed to medal and that maybe that might have put a small damper on his enjoyment.

He's a me-first person. Also me-second and me-third.

So when Ben Johnson surpassed him in the late '80s in the 100, we heard Lewis claiming Johnson must use steroids. It turns out he was right, but that doesn't mean that Lewis wasn't spreading rumor because rumor was all he had to work with. And when the '88 gold in the 100 fell to Lewis once Johnson was caught with steroids, we didn't feel happy for Lewis, who came off, if anything, as sanctimonious.

But now maybe it's different. This week may have done it. Let's start with the 100 meters earlier in the week when Lewis set the record. He did it at age 30 when sprinters are supposed to be long past their prime. And he did it by beating Leroy Burrell, who had supplanted him as the world's fastest and who had broken Lewis' record. This race elevated Lewis to a different level, and since he was the only one on the previous level, that speaks volumes about his accomplishments.

But nothing compares to the business of the long jump. His duel with Powell, a silver medalist in the '88 Olympics but who had, of course, never beaten Lewis, did not start out as a duel at all. Lewis was in top form. On his third jump, he hit 28-11 3/4 , his best jTC ever, although it was wind-aided. That seemed to clinch the gold, leaving only his assault on Bob Beamon's freak record set at Mexico City at altitude.

On Lewis' fourth jump, he went 29-2 3/4 , a quarter-inch past Beamon, but also wind-aided. And now it seemed he might get the record he has been chasing for 10 years. But then came Powell, whose career best was 28-5 but who hit the perfect jump, the jump of a lifetime, a jump that only Beamon can appreciate, a jump so surprisingly pure and perfect that it shocked the track world. In a legal wind, he came down 29 feet, 4 1/2 inches from where he began, and nothing was the same.

Except Lewis.

He had two more jumps. It is a tribute to Lewis that Powell would say afterward that he felt sure Lewis, whom he called King Carl, would catch him. So did Lewis. As Powell sat helplessly, a hand on his heart, he watched Lewis take his final two jumps. On the first, he went 29-1 1/4 . On the second, 29 even. Neither was wind-aided. Both were close to perfection. And they ended the most phenomenal series of jumps in history. And they showed that Lewis has a heart at least 29 feet long.

Lewis wept, just as he had when he regained the record in the 100. Sure, this time he cried for himself, but we felt sorry for him and glad for him at the same time. And who couldn't help but be in awe of him? The record went to Powell, but the moment belonged to Lewis.

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