Carl LewisAug 25th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1961-Present Frederick Carlton “Carl” Lewis achieved numerous world records over a long career, and across four track and field events: the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, the 400-meter relay, and the long jump. In 1984, he confidently fulfilled his own prediction and won four gold medals in a single Olympic games.
An Athletic Family
Lewis was born in 1961 in Birmingham, Alabama, the third of four children of Bill and Evelyn Lewis. Both parents were superior athletes who attended Tuskegee Institute where his father ran track and played football. His mother, a hurdler, ran in the Pan-American Games of 1951. His siblings also showed great talent, more so than Lewis himself, who was relatively short and thin. After relocating to Willingboro, New Jersey, his parents started a track club but urged Lewis to concentrate on music.
Showing an early determination that would serve him for the rest of his career, Lewis instead focused on practicing the long jump and competing in local track meets, losing more often than not. However, he succeeded in capturing the attention of track star Jesse Owens at a meet in Philadelphia when Owens encouraged the other children to follow the example of Lewis’ spirit. By the time Lewis graduated from high school in 1979, he had become the country’s top-ranked athlete in high school track.
Intent on pursuing an athletic career, Lewis enrolled at the University of Houston, Texas, to work with that school’s track and field coach Tom Tellez. On their first meeting, Lewis famously announced, “I want to be a millionaire and I don’t ever want a real job.” Tellez responded in kind by improving Lewis’s long jump style; he would remain his coach for Lewis’ entire career. The results were immediate: in 1980, Lewis qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in the long jump and 400-meter relay. However, in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the United States joined several other nations in boycotting the Moscow games of that year. As an alternative, the boycotting nations participated in the Liberty Bell Classic games, at which Lewis earned a bronze medal in the long jump and a gold with the relay team. His sprinting talent was also developing rapidly, and by the end of that year, he was among the top 100-meter runners worldwide.
Lewis relocated to California in 1982 to train at the Santa Monica Track Club. His progress continued at a remarkable pace, as did his achievements in the four events that would comprise his repertoire for the balance of his career: the long jump, 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and 400-meter relay. In the 1983 track and field world championships in Finland, he earned three gold medals, and then set an indoor long jump world record in early 1984. With the Los Angeles Summer Olympics approaching later that year, his prospects seemed excellent; Lewis confidently (some felt arrogantly) predicted that he would win four events, an achievement unmatched since Jesse Owens’ triumphant performance and victory over racial bias in the 1936 Berlin games in Nazi Germany.
Going for Gold
With the stated goal of matching Owens’ record, Lewis approached the 1984 games with a combination of talent and strategy. He began with the 100-meter sprint, and racked up his first gold medal with a time of 9.99 seconds. Next up was the long jump, in which his first leap was an exceptional 8.54 meters. Lewis knew that this was good enough to win his second gold medal. Mindful of his remaining heats and races in the 200-meter sprint and 400-meter relay, and in order to avoid any risk of injury or strain, he opted to take just one more of his allotted jumps and passed on the last four. His nearest competitor jumped 8.24 meters, and the gambit payed off with a second gold. But while it was legitimate under Olympiad rules, many members of the public didn’t understand the technicalities. Some also felt disappointed that Lewis failed to go on to challenge the long jump record, held by Bob Beamon at 8.9 meters, with his jumps that remained. There were boos from the crowd. Nevertheless, Lewis and his teammates were in top form for his last two events: he set a new Olympic record of 19.8 seconds for the 200-meter sprint, and the relay team, which he anchored, set a new world record of 37.83 seconds, bringing Lewis his third and fourth gold medals of the 1984 games.
But while he had matched Owens’ achievement and was held in high esteem in Europe and Japan, Lewis failed to secure the general popularity and lucrative endorsements that he sought in the United States. Indeed, one such contract with Nike was cancelled, and some writers began referring to him as “King Carl” in response to his attitude and occasional peremptory behavior.
Lewis’ disappointments in this regard were compounded on the track. A Canadian, Ben Johnson, began running the 100-meter sprint against Lewis in 1985, often winning the race. In the 1988 Olympic games, held in Seoul, Korea, Johnson beat Lewis in this event with a record-breaking time. However, Johnson’s performance was disqualified when he was found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, and his gold medal was then awarded to Lewis. Nevertheless, time began to take its toll. Lewis would continue to win in competition, including the 1992 and 1996 Olympiads, but younger competitors were increasingly victorious.
Nevertheless, Lewis succeeded in achieving the acclaim and endorsements he had sought, including standing ovations from crowds and lucrative personal appearances, during this time. Taken together with a lifetime record of nine Olympic gold medals, Lewis achieved every one of his objectives. He was listed as one of the century’s greatest athletes at the 1999 Sports Illustrated 20th Century Sports Awards, a fitting acknowledgement of a lifetime of accomplishment.