Carl Lewis sprints to his third Olympics with an eye on history

March 01, 1992|By William C. Rhoden | William C. Rhoden,New York Times News Service

Who is Carl Lewis, really?

Is he the comet with the flattop haircut? Or the high-flying meteor with a ponytail and dreadlocks?

The other night, Lewis' head was shaved bald.

"None of you will ever know who I really am," Lewis said. "There are certain things that every person has to keep sacred."

Lewis is possibly the world's greatest sprinter. There is no question that he is the most durable. Friday night he was at Madison Square Garden for the Mobil Indoor Championships, winding down the indoor season and gearing up for a push to his third Olympics, in Barcelona, Spain.

At age 30 with a birthday coming in July, Lewis is approaching a point of his career where posterity and legacy have begun to assume as important a role as setting records.

Lewis said that he had been thinking of how history would be written 30 years from now and that he hoped the emphasis was not on his hairdos but his efforts for more stringent drug testing and his push to make the sport openly professional with more money being funneled to athletes.

"There are people in all periods who have to go against the system in order to change the system for the better," he said. "I was one of them."

A persistent recollection of Lewis is from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Lewis had literally been a flag bearer for the unchecked zeal of the Games. He won four gold medals -- the first in his sport since Jesse Owens to do that -- and after winning the fourth picked up an oversized flag and ran with it.

At the time some felt Lewis was either naive, crazy or terribly shrewd. As it turns out, he probably was a little of each and is still a little crazy and very shrewd. But in 1984 Lewis was in the final stages of inventing himself. The flag episode was an attempt to tap into the Apple Pie motif of the Games. It didn't work. The marketing people said Lewis seemed too rehearsed.

Perhaps subconsciously, the people who guard the gates of wealth and image felt that a black athlete like Lewis could not be that patriotic, except in extreme circumstances: Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, for example, proving that the United States could outrun the Nazis and beat them up, too.

Lewis had also been compared to Owens, which was fine when Lewis was 19. Lewis became older and learned how Owens had been exploited: run up a flag pole, waved then lowered. When they were finished with him, Owens found himself racing against horses.

Lewis decided to leave the comparisons with Owens on the track. He has been making money ever since.

The price paid, though, is that Lewis may never ever achieve folk hero status, or even be widely embraced by the world.

There always seemed to be a loose thread hanging from Lewis' cloak of greatness that marred otherwise perfect performances.

In 1984 he won four gold medals, yet his decision to pass on his final long jump when he had already clinched the gold medal, in addition to his flag celebration, clouded his extraordinary athletic accomplishment.

Four years later he lost the 100 meters in Seoul, South Korea, to Ben Johnson and complained that Johnson was using steroids. He was right, of course. Johnson was stripped of the victory and Lewis got the gold medal and a world record, even though some suggested that an asterisk be put next to the record.

Last July, Lewis and Johnson met in France for a rematch, where Lewis was determined to prove he could beat a steroid-free Johnson. He did, but Dennis Mitchell beat them both.

A couple of weeks later at the world championships in Tokyo, Lewis achieved the highlight of his career when he set a world record in the 100-meter -- -- at age 30. Shortly afterward, Mike Powell not only snapped Lewis' string of consecutive long jump victories, but also broke one of the most coveted records in sports: Bob Beamon's 23-year-old long jump record.

Lewis said he had planned to win the event and retire undefeated from the long jump and sprint for the rest of his career.

"Somebody was just telling me it's not time to stop jumping yet," he said.

Asked about the pattern this seemed to be part of, Lewis laughed. "I could sit back and say life is always giving me these twists of fate," he said.

"But after I lost the long jump, I sat down in my room that night and said, 'Well, there's a Lord and he's on both sides. If I'm going to stay in his game, I'd better jump 30 now. I know when I look back on all of it, it's going to be a funny career. But hey, somebody had to have it."

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