BARCELONA, Spain -- This is where you expect to find Carl Lewis every four years, at the center of the story, running the gantlet of television cameras and newspaper reporters in a tunnel underneath a stadium.
He was sweating now. Telling the world what it felt like to be finally free of a nagging virus, what it felt like to jump 28 feet, 5 3/4 inches and to move one step closer to the only goal that has eluded him in his career.
"I'm excited," he said. "I'm ready. It felt great to be back to myself."
You see, after all the years and all the gold medals, Lewis is still after one thing, the world record in the long jump.
He chased Bob Beamon's ghost of a jump around the world for nearly a decade. And on the night last August in Tokyo he cleared 29 feet, finally edged up to the number of his dreams, someone else got there first, someone named Mike Powell.
So there Lewis and Powell were last night in the long jump preliminaries of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
They were making cameos. Powell, his right hamstring tight, his lower back aching, took one jump of 26-8 1/2 , smiled and called it a night.
He was underneath the stands when Lewis finally took his spot on the runway.
Powell was saying how "Carl is the Olympic champion and I'm the underdog."
He was saying that his leg felt fine, that he wanted to get back to his hotel for another round of physical therapy.
And then he was gone, moments before Lewis finally brought life to the Summer Olympics.
For 11 days, Lewis had been everywhere in Barcelona. The airport. The main train station. The television set. The foreign newspapers.
Unfortunately, he wasn't on the track.
The human advertising poster for Panasonic, the budding newspaper columnist for Il Mondo, had nothing to do with these Games. A virus bogged him down at the U.S. trials in New Orleans. He was sixth in the 100. Lost third place in the 200 by a hundredth of a second. Finished second behind Powell in the long jump.
But he was still a threat in Barcelona, and everyone knew it.
When Linford Christie of Great Britain, a gallant old runner, outsmarted his younger rivals at the start and won the 100, there was a buzz that Lewis wouldn't have lost that race.
And when Michael Johnson went down in the 200 last night, you could almost wipe the smile off Lewis' face. In New Orleans, Johnson had called Lewis a runner of the past. Lewis said nothing then, but now he was talking about Johnson as if he were stepping on a cigarette butt, saying: "I'm not going to take a shot. I'm too big a man for that."
He could talk all right. Six gold medals gave him the right.
But his 65-meet long jump winning streak was history, broken by Powell at the 1991 world championships.
His aura of invincibility, immortality even, was cracked in the heat of New Orleans.
"There's always the question of, 'Is this the beginning of the end?' " said Lewis' Santa Monica Track Club teammate Danny Everett. "In talking with Carl, he doesn't feel that it's the beginning of the end. Everybody has the right to have a bad day, and if that bad day happens to come at a high-profile meet, it shouldn't automatically be assumed that this is it, and he'll never compete well again."
Now vulnerable at age 31, Lewis is a far more interesting and captivating figure.
Four golds and a flag-waving exhibition in Los Angeles in 1984 didn't win any American hearts. But beating Powell could.
Picture an old fighter out for the last meaningful bout of his career. Lewis vs. Powell is a lot like Ali vs. Frazier III. There may be other fights, other nights in a long jump pit, but none will have the meaning of Barcelona in 1992.
"If my sister Carol was out there, I'd want to beat her, too," Lewis said.
So you find Lewis in the tunnel after the preliminary. And everyone is comparing the numbers: 28-5 3/4 with 26-8 1/2 .
Everyone is talking about Lewis and his six-seconds-and-a-cloud-of-dust jump. The final comes tonight, but Lewis has already delivered this first shot, sailing off the board and hitch-kicking past Powell.
"He has a lot of talent," Lewis said. "He's ready to jump far. And I'm ready to jump far."
It was a long, long wait for Lewis. But he's here now. And so is Powell. And the Games will finally have a moment that defines them, gives them a little touch of greatness.
"The final is going to be great," Lewis said.
"I hope it's the best event of the Olympics."