Sorry, Carl, but time has come to pass the baton, not grab it ATLANTA OLYMPICS

July 31, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- Next, Carl Lewis will want to play for the Orioles.

He'd fit right in, considering his campaign for the anchor spot on the U.S. men's 4 x 100-meter relay team, a campaign to satisfy a personal goal at the possible expense of his team.

If Lewis were a hitter, he'd refuse to DH.

If he were a pitcher, he'd refuse to work on short rest.

Alas, he's a sprinter -- or, shall we say, a former sprinter.

And sprinters have agendas, too.

Michael Johnson sounded petty when he criticized Lewis' refusal to step down as the leading figure in U.S. track and field, but this is exactly what he was talking about.

Lewis finished eighth and last in the 100 at the Olympic trials. He refused to attend a pre-Olympic camp in Durham, N.C. And he won't even run a preliminary round in the relay, even though he could earn a gold medal that way.

But now, he wants to pad his stats.

It's understandable that Lewis wants to become the first Olympian to win 10 golds.

And maybe U.S. coach Erv Hunt should just bow to his runner's wishes, for the sake of history.

But Hunt said it himself: Lewis "hasn't been a very good team member."

And how stupid would Hunt look if Canadian world-record holder Donovan Bailey or some other anchor ran down Lewis in Saturday's final?

It probably wouldn't happen -- the United States almost always wins this event, and Lewis anchored gold-medal teams in 1984 and '92. If he could find a way to win the long jump Monday, he surely could crank up one last great relay leg.

Still, to indulge him now would be unfair to the four members of the U.S. relay team, not to mention the three alternates. All seven beat Lewis at the trials. Of course, Lewis had an excuse. Sprinters always have an excuse.

Cramps, OK?

Whatever, Jon Drummond, Leroy Burrell, Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell have run the fastest 4 x 100-meter relay in the world this year. Mitchell is 30, nearing the end of a solid, if overlooked, career.

He deserves one shot at anchor glory.

"Let me just say one thing: The USA 400-meter relay team is going out to get the job done," Mitchell said. "And if anybody has a problem with that, they can get out of the way.

"To put Carl on, you've got to put somebody off. And that's not cool, man. . . . I think the best thing Carl can do for us right now

is to give us his undying support. Carl's had his moment. Let me have mine."

Ah, but Dennis, you don't understand -- this isn't Lewis' idea.

It's America's!

"The pressure is on because people want me to run the relay," Lewis said. "People feel I have the right to run. That's where the pressure is. It's not coming from me. It's coming from 65 percent of the public."

That's what an ESPN Internet poll said.

Everyone else uses focus groups.

Why not King Carl?

Lewis is right -- the public probably wants him. NBC surely wants him. And if he goes down in history, no one will remember that he stiffed one of his teammates.

Marsh, for one, might even be willing to give up his spot.

But it goes back to the old question: What's more important, the individual or the team?

Lewis is probably the greatest athlete of our time, but that doesn't mean he should call every shot. Johnson's point is that he could exit more gracefully, and make way for the other sprinters behind him. "He went into the trials trying to make all three teams [the long jump, 100 and 4 x 100 relay]," Johnson said. "I felt like he would have been much better off just trying to make the long jump, which he did and went out and won.

"But Carl is his own man. He does what he wants to do. I prefer to focus on Michael, not on Carl."

Johnson does that rather nicely -- he got the Olympic schedule changed so he could attempt his unprecedented double in the 200 and 400.

But many suspect he'll represent the sport better than Lewis.

Obviously, it remains to be seen whether Johnson will make good on his word to accept lower appearance fees from U.S. promoters than he does to compete in international meets.

But it seems unlikely -- no, impossible -- that he'll prove as mercenary as Lewis, who no doubt senses the marketing possibilities that 10 gold medals would bring.

The guess here is that Lewis will anchor the relay, because these are the '90s, and one way or the other, the superstars always get what they want.

That doesn't make it fair. Nor does it make it right.

What's next for King Carl, Sydney 2000?

Heck, he'll only be 39.

He's the greatest.

We know he's the greatest.

Why can't he just bow out?

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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