Carl Lewis never crossed a finish line first in a final at the Seoul Olympics. He received his 100-meter gold by forfeit, with reruns of Ben Johnson's special-fuel-funny-car acceleration playing in his head. Lewis lost the 200-meter final to his training partner, Joe DeLoach. And he never got to anchor the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team because, with Lewis sitting out the first round of heats, the American team came unstuck at the last exchange and was disqualified.
Yet Lewis, who went home with two golds and a silver, pronounced this Olympic experience "tremendous." He had some statistical ammunition for his view, such as his American-record time of 9.92 in the 100, his near-personal best in the 200 of 19.79 and a winning long jump of 28' 7½". "Sure it was disappointing to see the gold go to the Soviets in the short relay," he said, "but my goals this time were ones of performance, not necessarily of victory."
At the Los Angeles Games, Lewis's priorities were the reverse. There he had sought victories in the four events—the 100, 200, 4 X 100 relay and long jump-in which Jesse Owens had been a winner in 1936, and he got them.
And there, having won, he struck many people as inhumanly good. Extremely observant, he seemed to be calculating. Trained in communications at the University of Houston, he seemed to put up screens of words. Folks sometimes sound as if they want a superman to represent them, but when one did, he didn't seem like folks. Now that will change. In Seoul, Lewis had a chance to be human in a way he never had in Los Angeles.
October 9, 1988
The first time he got that chance, he felt terrible. When Lewis realized Johnson would not be outraced, when he crossed the line looking into Johnson's glare, Lewis's be-happy-if-you-do-your-best resolve got its stiffest test. The race brought back memories of Rome in 1987, where Johnson ran a world-record 9.83 to beat Lewis, and rumors flew that Johnson was taking steroids. Jack Scott, a physiotherapist from Berkeley, Calif., who seemed ubiquitous in Seoul, treating athletes from several nations, recalled that in Rome "Carl's mother, Evelyn, actually said, 'Carl, why wouldn't you try those things?'
" 'Mom,' he said, 'I've got too much going for me in my life.' "
However, a few remarks by Lewis back then about the need to crack down on steroid users sounded like sour grapes. "People thought he was whining," says Scott. "But he deserves credit for his control, for holding back from saying what he was sure was true."
Lewis must have thought he had to live with the idea that Johnson was on something. Perhaps that was a factor in his decision to focus on performance rather than on victory in Seoul. Further, he knew Johnson could be beaten; Lewis had done it in a 100 in Zurich in August.
Seoul, therefore, was a blow. "Whatever he's on now, he wasn't on in Zurich," Lewis said quietly to a friend after the Olympic 100. But he kept the lid on his suspicions and pressed on with the 200 prelims and long jump. Early on Sept. 27, he learned that Johnson had tested positive for steroids. Lewis must have felt relief as well as sympathy for Johnson. Lewis later said he was happy for Calvin Smith, who would now receive the bronze. Yet, when pressed to offer public comment, he declined, even to NBC's Bryant Gumbel.
That evening he appeared with a group of athletes at a Lay Witnesses for Christ meeting at a church in Seoul. He spoke of a dream his mother had had the night before the 100 final. "My father [who died last year] came to her in her dream," he said. "He told her to make sure that I knew he was proud of me, and that whatever performance I made, don't worry about it. He said that everything would be all right. He said it again, everything would be all right.
"Today," he concluded with a smile, "we found that it was."
In the next day's 200 final, Lewis led out of the turn but was caught by DeLoach with 30 meters to go. Running with an arm action that made him look as if he were swatting at mosquitoes, DeLoach zipped away to win by a stride. "Well done," said Lewis. "It's been a long year."
DeLoach later said he was sorry to have come between Lewis and his dream, "but that's competition."
"What dream?" Lewis would say. "I'm content with my race."
At last Lewis spoke of Johnson. "I feel very sad for Ben and for the Canadian public," he said. "Ben is a great athlete, and my hope is that in the next two years he can get himself together and return to our sport. You can talk track up to a certain point. After that you talk people. Imagine the burden on Ben. Imagine what his family will go through."
Asked if he felt angry or betrayed by what Johnson had done, Lewis said, "There's no anger. There's a problem with drugs that needs a solution." If numbers of other athletes were beating the tests, Lewis seemed sensitive to the unfairness of singling out Johnson.
Lewis also had been embroiled for weeks in an argument over the composition of the U.S. 4 X 100-meter team. He pushed for his friend, DeLoach, to be placed on the team. American sprints and hurdles coach Russ Rogers favored Albert Robinson and Lee McNeill. Arguing much of the time through quotes in newspapers, Rogers said Lewis was out of line, and Lewis said he just wanted what was best for the country—all of which qualified as what a South Korean factory tour guide called "high-level crapmanship." A compromise was struck. Dennis Mitchell, Robinson, Smith and McNeill would run the preliminaries. For the final, DeLoach would replace Robinson, and Lewis would go in for McNeill.
American relay teams are rarely polished. They usually win on an anchor and a prayer. In the prelims, the U.S. team had neither. Before the first round, Lewis said, "I hope I get to run |in the final] tomorrow. I'm worried about this."
The first two passes were successful. All Smith, who was running the last turn, had to do was get the stick to McNeill. All McNeill had to do was give Smith a stable target. "He [McNeill] is young," said Smith later. "He got a little nervous. He moved his hand around."
Smith, who's 27, took three stabs at the pass. "My hand was shaking," said McNeill, 23. When McNeill finally got the baton, he was out of the 20-meter passing zone, and out of the race.
"Don't blame Lee," said Lewis. Thus his role at these Games appeared to be as a bestower of forgiveness. But whether he can bring himself to pardon the coaching staff has yet to be seen.
Lewis's longevity as a dash man and a jumper is unprecedented. No one had ever defended a 100 or long jump Olympic title before Lewis repeated in both in Seoul. "He could long jump in 1996, he's that good," says his coach, Tom Tellez.
Lewis is much the same man he was in 1984, though certainly the death of his father hurt him and moved him to a greater sense of purpose in his sport. It's time to reexamine our perceptions of Lewis. When these bewildering Olympics recede enough to allow us a sense of proportion, we may not remember Johnson being found out as much as Lewis being revealed as the gentleman he has always been.