The older man, the one who would soon own his ninth Olympic gold
medal, lay on his back at the end of the long jump runway in
Olympic Stadium, dressed in full sweats, leaning back on his
elbows between jumps. The younger man, seeking his first
individual gold, the trophy that his mantel lacked, swept past
in a hail of camera flashes, tearing down the backstretch of the
400 meters to a thunderous roar. It was thought that this would
be the night when the younger man would supplant the older man
as the king of track and field. But there must be room for both
Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson.
This is an article from the July 30, 1996 issue
Last night belonged to the 35-year-old Lewis, who won that ninth
gold and was victorious in his signature event for the fourth
consecutive Olympics, matching Al Oerter, who won the discus for
the U.S. four times from 1956 to '68. Lewis jumped 27'10 3/4",
his longest nonaltitude jump since--is this perfect?--his
winning jump at the Barcelona Games four years ago. This he did
one hour before Johnson ripped around the final curve of the 400
and powered home eight meters clear of Great Britain's Roger
Black in an Olympic record 43.49 seconds, .20 of a second off
Butch Reynolds's eight-year-old world record. It was a night in
which history trumped achievement but in which there was plenty
of glory for both men.
Johnson has repeatedly been asked if he wishes Lewis would
relinquish his position at the top of the track world, and even
in the wake of their victories he offered his most pointed
response. "As far as Carl trying to be the premier athlete in
track and field, I think he should step down from there,"
Johnson said. "[But] my job is not to replace Carl Lewis. I'm
trying to win as many gold medals as I can. He wanted to come to
the trials and try to make all three teams [the 100, the 200 and
the long jump]. I feel like he would have been better off
concentrating on the long jump, which is the only one he made.
But Carl is his own man. I'm trying to concentrate on Michael,
It was a difficult moment for Johnson. Since 1991 he has been
the most skilled and versatile sprinter in the world, yet events
had conspired to keep him from standing alone at the top of an
Olympic medal stand (he won a relay gold in '92). The most
notable event was in Barcelona, where as a heavy favorite in the
200 he came down with a case of food poisoning and failed to
qualify for the finals. "This makes up for 1992," Johnson said.
But regardless of his passion and his talent and even his
frustration, it was not enough to steal the light from the
Lewis was given a chance to win his historic gold because the
long jump field was not strong--not because his form merited it.
Lewis had finished third at the U.S. trials in June and advanced
past Sunday night's qualifying round only after jumping 27'2
1/2" on his last attempt. Nevertheless, it has been a most
remarkable season for Lewis. After missing large chunks of 1993,
'94 and '95 with injuries and illness, he restored himself this
year with a new diet, weightlifting and a dedication to joy.
"The journey is truly the most important thing to me this time,"
Lewis said after the trials.
Last night he ran through the pit on his first attempt, then
jumped a pedestrian 26'8 1/2" on his second, which left him in
second place. But on his third jump, under a moon shrouded in
mist, Lewis ripped down the runway with speed reminiscent of
that which took him to two Olympic gold medals in the 100 (1984
and '88). He sailed into the air, hanging with his familiar
hitch kick, and landed in the soft sand 27'10 3/4" away. Even as
Lewis fell toward the earth, he looked at the measuring board
next to him, and upon leaving the pit, fell backward on the
ground next to it. As the distance was announced, he rose and
raised his arms to the sky. It was the shortest of his four gold
medal jumps, and the first time since 1976 that the long jump
gold medalist hadn't gone 28 feet. That didn't matter in the
least. And he would have to wait to see if that jump would stand
up, as the others in the eight-man field each had three more
chances to beat his mark. Most dangerous among them was
world-record holder Mike Powell of the U.S.
"You want your Olympic experience to last forever," Lewis said
later. "But after my third jump I wanted it to end."
Powell fouled on his fourth and fifth attempts, and after the
latter he limped from the sand, holding his left groin muscle.
In a curious and touching interplay, Powell hobbled in pain as
Johnson was taking his victory lap. Johnson stopped to see him,
and later Powell made a dramatic final attempt. He pounded down
the runway and leaped, but as he tried to kick his left leg
forward, he grimaced and fell face first in the sand, his body
bathed in grains like that of a surfer cast ashore.
"I didn't pull it, but I strained it," Powell said. "It hurt
enough that I couldn't jump. I can't believe it. I didn't win. I
didn't get a chance to medal. [The winning jump] wasn't that
far." Powell was asked about Lewis. He paused as if collecting
his thoughts, started to speak and then stopped. He shook his
head and walked away into the belly of the stadium.
It is Lewis's legacy that he has never been the most popular of
athletes. "All the years I've been competing in Europe, I never
saw him eat dinner with other athletes," said sprinter Linford
Christie of Great Britain. Yet as Powell refused to acknowledge
Lewis's greatness, and as Johnson tried to bring it to an end at
its pinnacle, Lewis called for a halt to the sniping.
"There's no greatest athlete in track and field," he said. "If
we had 30-some Carl Lewises and Michael Johnsons, there would be
no other sports. Michael Johnson needs to realize that there's
no sole star in track and field. I don't know what it is that
I'm supposed to be relinquishing." And then he issued a reminder
to Johnson. "If I hadn't changed the money standard in the
sport," said Lewis, "Michael wouldn't be making as much as he is
Perhaps the problem is that Lewis has long been different from
the traditional track athlete, many of whom were modest
amateurs. Lewis promoted himself. "A lot of people want Carl to
be like Jesse Owens," said Tom Tellez, Lewis's longtime coach.
"He just isn't. He's totally different. Carl has his own ideas.
But I think, right now, people understand Carl better than at
any other time in his career."
Surely U.S. long jumper Joe Greene does. Greene, the 29-year-old
bronze medalist, heaped mountains of praise on Lewis. "He's a
great athlete; gosh, he's a great athlete," said Greene. "I'm 29
and my body feels like it's 60. Carl's 35 and he's still doing
this. Someday I hope my kids ask me, 'Dad, did you ever beat
Carl Lewis?' That's his legacy."
Johnson's legacy could grow on Thursday night, when he attempts
to become the first man in Olympic history to win the 200 and
the 400 in the same Games. Last night he dominated the 400, and
at the same time again became a victim of his own greatness. As
Johnson crossed the line, he glanced at the electronic clock
next to the track, and when he saw the time, he seemed to delay
his celebration slightly. "I've said for two years that I know I
have an opportunity to break the world record," Johnson said.
"But there are so many conditions that have to be right. This
might be my only opportunity to win a gold medal. There will be
other chances to break the world record."
His race was, as always, a demonstration of controlled power. He
seemed to glide through the opening 200, then opened up as he
came off the final turn. He never looked back, as he had in his
preliminary heats. "The only way to beat Michael Johnson is if
he makes a mistake," said Black. "And he doesn't make them, at
least not that I've seen. I was running for the silver medal
tonight. For me, when Michael is running, the silver medal is my
It was not only a night for Johnson and Lewis. Allen Johnson of
the U.S. won the 110-meter hurdles in an Olympic record 12.95.
Svetlana Masterkova of Russia was an upset winner in the women's
800, holding off Ana Quirot of Cuba and Maria Mutola of
Mozambique to win in 1:57.73. Masterkova couldn't believe the
result herself, dashing around the track after her victory and
gesturing with her arms to the crowd. And in the dying minutes
of the evening, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ran one of the
most brilliant distance races in Olympic history, taking the
10,000 in an Olympic record 27:07.34. Like Michael Johnson,
Gebrselassie will attempt a double as the favorite in Saturday's
But the enduring images from this night were of two men only. Of
Michael Johnson and Lewis, each circling the stadium track, each
carrying his own flag. Of both of them, on the top step of the
medal stand, Johnson weeping, Lewis blowing a kiss into the night.