Gold medals? what Carl Lewis really covets are gold watches. Why else would he privately announce his retirement, oh, a hundred times in the last decade, according to his friends' best estimates? "I think he retired after the '84 Olympics," says U.S. sprinter Mike Marsh, who shakes his head glumly in imitation of his famous teammate, muttering to himself, " 'I'm through, man. I'm through....' "
Give the man a gold Rolex, for goodness' sake. Not because Lewis is anywhere near retirement, but for a quite different reason: Carl Lewis cannot keep track of time. These days the World's Fastest Man must be wearing the World's Slowest Wristwatch. Lewis doesn't seem to realize that he's 32 years old—106 in sprinters' years.
At 32 one does not command a $150,000 fee to run 100 meters, though Lewis was paid that much to do just that last Friday night in the north of England. At 32 one does not run in the richest track race ever held on British soil, against the sport's other great star, himself a man of 33. "The biggest race of the year," Lewis said on the eve of his 100-meter showdown with England's Linford Christie, the '92 Olympic gold medalist who was also paid $150,000 to compete at this invitational meet in Gateshead. "And it's between two guys in their 30's who are both supposed to be over the hill."
Lewis knew that the Dash for Cash was not the biggest race on this year's "shedyool," as they say hereabouts. Lewis and Christie will meet at least once again over the next two weeks, almost certainly for the world crown—and more riches—in Stuttgart, Aug. 14 and 15. On your deutsche marks, get set....
No, if the result of last Friday's eight-man race had really mattered, Lewis would not have kited into England on the Concorde only 24 hours before the gun went off at Gateshead International Stadium. Not surprisingly, he looked flat as airline soda in running a 10.22 on a slow, cold track—finishing behind Christie (10.08) and Jon Drummond, a 24-year-old American who dang near won with a 10.12. No, what really mattered, as Lewis said afterward, was this: "It was a great race for the sport."
The world was watching, with the notable exception of the United States. "Hey, America, where are you?" asked Lewis's manager, Joe Douglas, contemptuous not of the nation's track and field fans but of the sport's inert governing body. As charismatic and accomplished in his field as Ali and Pelè were in theirs, Lewis somehow remains a much bigger star in Europe than he is in America. Is he Carl Lewis, or is he Jerry Lewis?
Lewis was accorded rock-star status upon arriving in London from the U.S. When Lewis disembarked from the Concorde, his head was swaddled in a Stars and Stripes bandanna of his own design, and a peace symbol dangled from one earlobe. When you're Carl Lewis, a connecting flight catches you at Heathrow. An hour later he touched down in Newcastle, where a police van took him from tarmac to terminal, where a throng of reporters awaited. After pollinating the airport with enthusiastic comments on the race ("It's a show, it's fun, it's great drama," he said), Lewis was borne by navy-blue Rolls-Royce to Newcastle's finest hotel, where this regal athlete would be sequestered in the Castle Suite.
Lewis has lighted up more rooms than Commonwealth Edison. Christie, on the other hand, was once described as having a balanced temperament—which is to say he carries a chip on both shoulders. "There will be only one winner in Gateshead," he said a week before the race, "and it won't be Carl Lewis." For his part, Lewis has accused Christie of ducking him during the previous year.
They should have met at the Olympics last summer. But Lewis, the eight-time Olympic gold medalist in the sprints, relays and long jump, winner of three consecutive world championships in the 100, failed to qualify for the 100 in Barcelona. So Christie, who finished second to Lewis in Seoul in 1988, won the gold last summer in 9.96 seconds. Because of Lewis's absence, however, Christie's victory was said to ring hollow.
At Christie's request, Drummond was entered into the sprint and placed at the great Briton's immediate left, in lane 3. Christie hoped to use Drummond, a quick starter, as a rabbit out of the chute. After one false start, which only heightened tensions, that is exactly what Christie did. Lewis, in lane 5, stayed with Christie for the first 30 meters. "Then his legs went dead," Douglas said afterward.
"I came from 95-degree heat in Houston," said Lewis. "Maybe that took a little bit of sting out of my legs."
Without Lewis's customary late-race power surge, Christie beat him by 1½ meters but won only after straining past Drummond in the final 20. "People have said I was too old since I was 26," said Christie afterward. "Then I won [in Barcelona] at 32. I am a winner."
That he would be around to win the gold last year was never a certainty. Like Lewis—who now says he hopes to race through the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta—Christie toyed with retirement. He did so in 1991 after he ran a personal record of 9.92 at the world championships in Tokyo but lost. "Can you imagine," he said after that historic sprint, "running a 9.92 and finishing fourth?" Of course, the first of the three men who finished ahead of Christie was Lewis, who set the world record of 9.86 in that race.
Thankfully, neither Lewis nor Christie opted for the gold watch, though the former has forsaken the long jump to concentrate solely on the 100 this season. Among those who urged Christie to stay in the game was Lewis, so that—if nothing else—there would be someone older than him out there. "The two oldest guys in the sport put bums on seats," Christie said after Friday night's race.
As for Lewis, he is certain he can still run as fast as he ever has, which is fast enough to make the earth rotate in the opposite direction. "I know I can run under 10 seconds this year," he says. "And that will put me in any race."
The scary thing is, nobody disputes him. "The knowledge of a few years ago said you couldn't run past age 26," says Marsh, who just turned 26. "For guys to be doing this at 32 and 33 says a lot about those scientific theories—and says a lot to the rest of us coming up, as well."
That's the beautiful thing about being Carl Lewis: When you've run the final leg of relay races all your life, you think you never have to pass the baton.