At its best, autobiography is self-exploration. At its worst, it's self-justification. Carl Lewis's Inside Track: My Professional Life in Amateur Track and Field, written with Jeffrey Marx (Simon and Schuster, $19.95), falls closer to the latter. Track fans will want to read the book because it does address important issues like steroid use and professionalism, but it does so in a way that almost always puts Lewis in the best light.
Lewis is track and field's most gifted athlete. He has won six Olympic gold medals and holds the world record in the 100 meters. He would probably also hold the 200 and long-jump marks if the records had not been set with the aid of altitude. Furthermore, he's handsome and bright, and he can belt out a pretty fair rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Yet, to his chagrin, controversy has dogged Lewis. The 1984 Olympics should have been his great stage, a chance for the consummate athlete/showman to strut his stuff and soak up the adoration and the cash. But that never happened, and as Inside Track makes clear, Lewis is still trying to figure out why.
One reason, as Lewis sees it, is that the public misunderstands him, a situation he blames on the press. "There was nothing new to say about me," he says. "When you can't find something new, it's time to find something wrong."
July 15, 1990
Casting about for dirt, says Lewis, the press came up with three notions about him: He is arrogant, he is gay, and he uses performance-enhancing drugs. Lewis addresses all three in a chapter called "Carl-Bashing," though hardly in the detail that will make the rumors go away for good. The rumors about his sexuality were started, Lewis says, by a spurned lover "who had been in bed with me more than enough times to know that I was not gay."
Inside Track's few surprises are hardly startling. Lewis claims that Jumbo Elliott, the late Villanova coach, promised the Lewis family an Athletic Attic franchise if Lewis would enroll at Villanova; he went to Houston. Lewis broke NCAA rules by signing a $200,000 contract with Nike while at Houston. He admits to having had cosmetic surgery on his nose.
However, on the subject of his income, Lewis is conspicuously silent. By his own admission, Lewis and his Santa Monica Track Club teammates live like kings while competing in Europe. "A private bus and separate hotel are not the biggest things in the world," Lewis writes. "But they are indicative of the way our club demands and commands respect."
Could that be more smug? Lewis never reveals what it costs to lodge the SMTC for a night, but one has to wonder whether Lewis and his teammates get to stay in five-star hotels only because athletes from other clubs are holed up in "small, crowded" ones. Even in Europe, meet promoters have finite budgets.
Inside Track is not going to win Lewis any friends. He sounds too aggrieved in some places, too catty in others. Did people really laugh at Edwin Moses when he forgot the words to the Olympic oath in 1984? To Lewis, Larry Myricks, twice the world indoor champion in the long jump, is a "choke artist." And after Butch Reynolds allegedly tried to keep Carl's teammate, Steve Lewis, out of the 400 at the Bislett Games last summer, Carl was not satisfied merely that Steve won the 400: "To make things even better," he says, "[Reynolds] finished second in the 200," as if to say, Ha, Butch! That's what you get for messing with Santa Monica.
Lewis's discussion of Ben Johnson is especially disappointing. He writes, "I had gone through different ways of thinking about Ben." If so, he does not share those thoughts in much detail.
I suspect that the real reason Lewis has not been embraced by the American people is a certain lack of candor. "When I did talk to reporters," he writes, "I would answer their questions without saying a whole lot more than I had to."
He worries about projecting the right image. After his training partner, Joe DeLoach, beat him in the 200 at the 1988 Olympic Trials, Lewis gave him some illuminating advice about victory laps: "Make sure you keep waving," Lewis told DeLoach. "Always give smiles. If you see somebody you know, give an extra little stare because people notice that. They think that's nice."
Well, maybe. Most people, though, are not such bumpkins that they can't tell the difference between real and phony smiles. I suspect, too, that after reading Inside Track, they will sense that there's a difference between the public and private Lewis. But they still won't know that private Lewis very well.