WASHINGTON -- A month later, Carl Lewis still calls it the greatest meet of his life -- yes, even better than his four gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics. But the average American track and field fan remembers the World Championships in Tokyo for one thing, and one thing only: Mike Powell's world record in the long jump.
The record should belong to Lewis, and probably will belong to Lewis, maybe even before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Fraction by fraction he inched toward Bob Beamon's mark, but it was Powell who finally made the spectacular 23-year leap forward. If the greatest track athlete of our time needed any inspiration, he's got it now.
This is not about Powell, of course. This is about a relentless pursuit, and a logical conclusion. A month later, Lewis is philosophical over what happened in Tokyo. He certainly has no need to apologize, not after setting the 100-meter world record, not after anchoring the U.S. 400-meter relay team to another world mark.
Yesterday he visited Washington along with nearly 50 other past and present U.S. Olympians, everyone from George Foreman to Oscar Robertson to Florence Griffith-Joyner. The occasion was the First Annual Olympic Dinner, a $1,000-per-plate affair in support of the 1992 Olympic effort. President Bush was a co-host. Lewis was a featured speaker.
Powell, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, was not among the invited guests. He's woofing it up with the likes of Arsenio Hall these days, reveling in his newfound fame. If he's smart, he'll milk it while it lasts. The record is now 29 feet 4 1/2 , and Lewis is convinced, absolutely convinced, he can do better.
"The way I jumped in Tokyo gives me the incentive to know I can jump farther," Lewis said. "I always said once I got to 29, I'd take it from there. Now that we're at 29, the objective is to get to 9 meters. That's 29-6 -- the next level."
Can Powell possibly keep up? It was Lewis, after all, who put together the greatest long-jumping series ever in Tokyo, three times clearing 29 feet. He had won 65 straight meets over 10 years without once exceeding that distance. Powell, of course, hadn't reached it either. He was 0-15 against Lewis entering the meet.
Thus, it seems almost unfair Lewis didn't pass Beamon first. But publicly at least, Lewis' disappointment lasted only a few days. A month later, he won't even complain about Powell overshadowing his spectacular 100. "Anyone who broke that record deserves the attention," he said. "I think it's fair."
As for Powell himself, Lewis downplayed the predictable talk of hard feelings. "Mike and I obviously have a rivalry," he said. "Mike is a very emotional athlete, but a very relaxed person. He's gets very psyched in competition. But he changes totally outside of competition. People try to mix the two. But he's laid-back and low-key off the track."
Spoken like a master, but if Lewis isn't secure, then who is? He competed in only one other long-jump competition this season before exploding in Tokyo. He was even thinking about "winding down" in the event to focus on the 200. "It's hard for me to watch a 200 and not get angry," he said. "I like to run all the events."
Now he's rededicating himself to the long jump, and at the age of 30, he's again the world's fastest man. He lowered the 100-meter record from 9.90 seconds to 9.86, the largest drop since 1968. Then he helped lower the 400-meter relay record from 37.67 to 37.50, the biggest reduction since 1983.
Smashing Beamon's record in the same week would have made Lewis "the athlete of the century," according to Sports Illustrated. But along came Mike Powell, and just like that, Lewis was no longer even the athlete of the day.
"On the outside, no, it's not going to bother him," said Lewis' friend Leroy Burrell, the previous record-holder in the 100. "But on the inside, Carl is saying, 'I know I can jump farther.' I think we'll see improvement on that record. I think there's a very good chance, a very high probability, we'll see improvement on that record next year."
Lewis isn't making any predictions; he isn't even sure of the events he'll enter in Barcelona. As it stands, he's the only person in history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters and long jump. In '92 he likely will attempt the track-and-field version of a triple double.
This isn't one man competing against another, this is one man competing against himself. What Mike Powell accomplished at the World Championships wasn't necessarily an aberration, but for now it stands as a singular moment of glory. Carl Lewis knows all about such moments. He had a few in Tokyo himself.