Carl Lewis dwells, it seems, in a looking-glass world where up is down and words, which he tends to fire off in enigmatic asides, have all the weight of smoke. He takes a magician's delight in keeping people guessing. Though only 28, Lewis has been in the public eye for a decade, and the more you see him, the more you don't.
No one knew what to expect from Lewis last Friday afternoon when he lowered himself into the blocks for the final of the 100 meters at The Athletics Congress's USA/Mobil Outdoor Track and Field Championships, at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif. He had skipped last year's meet, even though it was held on his home track at the University of Houston. He did so, he said, to publicize his belief that TAC was not serving the sport well. When a number of other stars, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Butch Reynolds, also failed to compete in Houston, the meet became a depressing little affair.
TAC was not about to allow its championships to be eviscerated again. It passed a rule stipulating that in order to participate in the Goodwill Games in Seattle next month, an athlete must first compete in the USA/Mobil meet. Lewis, it was widely rumored, would "compete" in the first round of the 100-meter event and then go home to await his inevitable selection for Seattle. Not so, replied Lewis. "People love to put rumors out on me," he said. "I came here with the objective of running all three rounds."
Lewis looked superb in the first round, winning as he pleased in a wind-aided 10.06. "I was wondering where everybody was," he said later. "I didn't know if I was running fast or they were running slow." In the semis last Thursday night, he ran 10.20, qualifying for the final despite cramping at the finish. "I forgot to take in any fluids today," he explained. "So much is happening right now."
June 24, 1990
Lewis has always seemed to thrive on distraction, and of late his schedule has been positively insane. Not only has he begun promoting his book, Inside Track, which is due out next week, but in Norwalk he also got up each day at 4:30 a.m. to phone in reports to Houston radio station KHYS, where he has been sports director since Jan. 22. Lewis has stayed in training throughout, but he had run only one race since last September, an inconclusive 10.42 in Houston on June 7.
The weekend's only real test for Lewis was expected to be in the final, but he got out well, and at 50 meters he had a foot on the field. He surged home like the Lewis of old, opening an astonishing two meters on his nearest pursuer, Santa Monica Track Club teammate Mark Wither-spoon. Lewis's time was 10.05, 0.13 off his world record of 9.92, and the wind was legal. Everyone was awed by the performance but Lewis, who said, "I stopped surprising myself a long time ago."
Lewis caught everyone off guard again when—after conferring with several TAC officials—he performed an about-face on the subject of TAC's administration of track and field. In the past Lewis has complained loudly and often about the organization's lack of accountability under executive director Ollan Cassell, whom a number of disgruntled athletes have likened to a dictator. Lewis also has objected to TAC's drug-testing procedures, calling for tests to be conducted independently.
As the meet opened, on June 12, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that TAC officials have "selectively enforced drug positives" and "circumvented their own protocol and by-laws when convenient." The Times also reported that in February Cassell decided, in violation of TAC's own rules, to declare void two positive tests for the stimulant ephedrine.
In such a climate, Lewis's change of heart—"It seems they [TAC officials] are more open to moving our sport forward," he said—was puzzling. Why would Lewis suddenly become a TAC booster? Speculation focused on two big paydays, the Goodwill Games and a match race with Ben Johnson, which very likely will take place when he regains international eligibility in September. Perhaps, the reasoning went, Lewis feared that TAC might meddle in his plans.
Cassell, who appears on the cover of the July issue of Track & Field News with the billing TRACK'S EMBATTLED CZAR, was providing no answers. His car was hit by a speeding truck in Indianapolis on Wednesday night and five of his ribs were broken; he had been forbidden by his doctor to fly to the meet. In his absence, TAC administrators, who defended him against any charges of wrongdoing, nevertheless discussed a restructuring under which Cassell would be removed as executive director.
One thing Cassell needs to do is promote his sport. "You have so much talent in the U.S., but this meet feels like a British League Division Two match," said John Rodda of the London newspaper The Guardian as he surveyed Falcon Stadium last Friday night. "Where are all the banners for advertising?"
Partly because of the lack of promotion, only a handful of people were on hand for the decathlon early in the week, but those lucky few were treated to the finest decathlon in U.S. history. Day One belonged to a 23-year-old from Klamath Falls, Ore., named Dan O'Brien. After running 100 meters in a wind-aided 10.40, O'Brien sailed 26'4½" in the long jump, the longest legal jump ever in a decathlon. He then put the shot 50'4¾" and high jumped 6'11¾". Despite a disappointing 49.25 in the 400, O'Brien finished the first day with 4,656 points, 130 more than the U.S. record set 22 years ago by Bill Toomey in the Mexico City Olympics. O'Brien led defending TAC champion Dave Johnson by 297 points.
The two rivals share more than athletic talent. Both have used track to cope with personal problems. "I was drowning in alcohol and drugs," says O'Brien of his not-so-distant past. In 1988, after three academically unproductive years, O'Brien's coach at Idaho, Mike Keller, packed him off to Spokane Community College, where he straightened out.
The 27-year-old Johnson grew up in Missoula, Mont., where he often broke into houses to steal alcohol. "There's a lot of alcohol in my past," admits Johnson, who was arrested several times as a teenager before his family moved to Corvallis, Ore., where he discovered football and track. "Throwing rocks at cars kept my arm in shape," says Johnson, who is now a devout Christian. "Running from the police made me fast."
Johnson offered no explanation for his prowess in the pole vault and javelin. Yet it was those two events that carried him past his precocious rival. On Wednesday he vaulted 16'4¾" to O'Brien's 14'1¼" and threw the javelin 222'5", more than 30 feet farther than O'Brien. After 10 events, Johnson prevailed, 8,600 points to 8,483.
Never before had two Americans topped 8,400 in the same decathlon. And the field was deep. Seven Americans topped 8,000 points, three more than had ever done so in a single meet. "This event is back in the U.S.," said Johnson, "and we're going to see some big scores by '92."
In the reemergence of the decathlon may lie an important message for U.S. track and field as a whole. Fred Samara, a 1976 Olympic decathlete who is TAC's national coordinator for multi-events, had been distressed by the fact that from 1981 to '88, no American ranked higher than ninth in the world. So he asked Visa to invest in the decathlon, and the credit card company came through with generous funding for clinics and stipends. "There's no reason why we can't do this in every event," Samara said.