Except for printed words—and who can ever trust them?—the first thing I ever learned about Carl Lewis was that he had just given an interview in his bikini briefs, in his bathroom, to my wife. They were damn good quotes too.
She was a journalist at the time. He was a man just months away from bursting upon the American consciousness in the 1984 Summer Games. How could you not be impressed by a guy who could so casually do this? He was always different; that was one of the reasons we all had so much trouble understanding him. He was so out there we never could quite see what was in there.
Being the world's fastest human and longest jumper wasn't enough for Carl Lewis. He vowed to become more different, by becoming a singer and dancer and actor and commentator, by saying tall things and wearing otherworldly clothes and haircuts. In his early years as a world-class athlete, there was sometimes almost a desperation in the way he made sure you knew this about him: He was not just a trackman. He was limitless.
But in the end there was one thing he couldn't escape: his own talent. One by one, all the trappings that were supposed to make him unique fell away like leaves, leaving only this rare, bare-trunk truth: Excelling at the simplest things—running and jumping—for the longest time is what has made Carl Lewis unlike any athlete who ever lived.
August 16, 1992
A grin lit up his face as he took the baton on the last leg of the world-record 4 x 100 men's relay on Saturday night in Barcelona. He already owned seven gold medals from three Olympics, had run 14 sub-10-second 100-meter races, had long-jumped 28 feet or more 60 times and had anchored five world-record relay teams. And yet Lewis's moment in the sun, his public coronation, had somehow never quite come. Being booed in Los Angeles, where he refused to take his last four jumps so he could save himself for later events, had cast a shadow over his four gold medals in '84. Four years later in Seoul, the sight of Ben Johnson's stanozolol-pumped body crossing the 100 finish line first—although bleached from history by a subsequent failed drug test—along with a loss in the 200 and a botched teammate's hand-off in the relay filched Lewis's moment of exultation again. Even his 100-meter world record in the 1991 world championships in Tokyo was partially eclipsed when Mike Powell uncorked his Bob Beamon-beating long jump just a few days later.
But now he had the baton in his fist on the last night of track competition at the '92 Games. It was his moment, and he knew it, and the knowledge filled him with an uncontainable bliss. He blew out the lead—three meters, five, seven, smashing any doubt that he was still the world's fastest human—and then leaped three times into the air, threw up his arms, reared back and flung the baton into the crowd. World record. Eighth gold. Epiphany.
A funny thing had happened to the rebel. He had become an institution. Powell shook his head and marveled: "I remember watching him in high school, back in 1981. Despite all those years . . . despite not-so-wise public relations decisions and all the public misunderstandings about him . . . the man's still doing it. No doubt about it. He's the best track and field athlete ever."
Lewis's face glowed in the aftermath of his sprint: genuine awe, true joy. "Incredible!" he kept bubbling. And because Carl was finally wondrous, we could be wondrous too.
Just before the '84 Olympics I wrote a story about him. It was about a young man pursuing a great unknown—the path of his own prodigious talent—with an equally prodigious need never to allow himself to be surprised by what he discovered along that path. It was about a man with Muhammad Ali's greatness, Ali's belief in his own largeness, but without Ali's twinkle in his eye, Ali's spontaneous laughter at himself. Here was a man who might single-handedly drag track and field across a threshold, make it more than a quadrennial American fascination. But no, in the years that followed he would not become his sport's ambassador, would never become its Magic Johnson.
With all his body and soul, Lewis recoiled at my story. Every year or so I would receive another call from another of my brothers or sisters across the country: Lewis had just torn into me and the story again, on radio, in a newspaper or a book. Some people said it was because I had gotten too close to the bone, but—who knows in this life?—maybe I was gnawing on a knuckle and only thought I had the sternum. Perhaps it doesn't really matter now. When a man does something so well for so long, there comes a time, even in a personality-obsessed culture like ours, when the artwork, by its sheer weight and depth, becomes more important than the artist.
The mark of genius, the stamp of an original, does not come to a man simply by performing his craft better than any of his contemporaries. It comes when a man reinvents a form. The sprinter, before Lewis (and perhaps even after him), was a prisoner of time; his career, like his race, a bang and a blur . . . and then nothing. The great ones have exploded upon us for one Olympics, then either dropped to the ground with twisted faces—thoroughbreds faster than their tendons or ligaments could bear—or lost half a finger snap of speed and vanished from sight.
Long jumpers aren't much different. Six leaps a night, 1.4 seconds each time in the air, 8.4 seconds of life upon our retinas, never quite enough for us to absorb it all, to satisfy the heart . . . and then off to coach some Tennessee college track team, gone. But Lewis transcended the trap of time, staved off the death inherent in any great burst of speed—a saxophonist who had not only discovered a new, pure note, but also a way to not let go of it.
There came a moment during last Friday's semifinals of the 4 x 100 when you could see that, when you could feel it. Dennis Mitchell handed the baton to Lewis at the same instant as Cuban Joel Isasi dished off to teammate Jorge Luis Aguilera for the final rush to the finish line. For the first 40 meters Lewis ran with Aguilera, and then the camera captured the Cuban looking to his right. Two things flashed in his eyes: astonishment that he was keeping stride with Lewis and terror of what he suspected would happen next. This is your speed, Lewis seemed to be saying, and now this is mine. Lewis's legs lifted, those extraordinarily long thighs pumping all the way up until they were parallel with the track, arms slicing, jaw slackening, everything in him loosening at the moment when the others were all beginning to tighten, and away, away he surged. Once a man asked me to name the one most awesome thing I had ever seen in sports. I begged for two—nothing with a ball or glove or net or racket, just the simple essence of man's two most basic survival instincts, fight or flight: Mike Tyson hitting a heavy bag, and Carl Lewis running. Sixty-five thousand stomachs on Montjuïc felt that surge on Friday night, as if together they were on a ride, and one sound filled the Olympic Stadium, one great exhalation: whooooooooooooo. . . .
That is enough for Europeans; their awe of Lewis developed far more quickly and runs far deeper than ours. "Did you hear? Carl Lewis is going to run in the 4-by-100 relay!"—those were the first words from the lips of a Basque construction worker, a friend with whom I had not spoken in months, when I called two weeks ago. Perhaps their retinas, less assaulted by images than ours, retain those 9.9 seconds longer. But it is more than that: Excellence is enough for Europeans; personality doesn't get in their way.
Perhaps at home, too, Lewis's personality will come to color our view of him less and less. His reaction to the simplemindedness of the American selection process, to his elimination from the sprints due to one bad day last June in New Orleans, was wise. "Rules are rules," he said at a press conference just before the Games began. "Perhaps we can look at those rules after the Olympics, but now is not the time to get into that. You have to put it all in perspective. Worse things have happened to me."
But his absence from the 100 and 200 diminished his sport, deprived it of the same element that has helped keep swimming and gymnastics from any prolonged public embrace—the continuity of those whose stories we know, those who give us some context, some yardstick by which we can measure all the others. No one will begrudge Linford Christie his gold medal in the 100 . . . but imagine how much heavier it would feel in the hand if he had snatched it directly from Lewis.
Lewis seems to sense now that his true greatness flows from this continuity, from this taffy-pull of time. "I will take it one year at a time," he said last Saturday night. "But I'd love to be back in Atlanta in '96."
The mind boggles. The time has come. Time, for once, to put aside the why, the how, the when and the where of this man. Time to remember only the whooooooooooooo. . . .