Amazing confidence characterised Carl Lewis’ career throughout
When his father Bill died in 1987, Carl Lewis decided to bury the 100m gold he won in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics along with him. “I will get another one,” Lewis promised his mother, Evelyn. He did. Though Lewis lost the 100m final to Ben Johnson in Seoul 1988 in what was the most-eagerly awaited clash in Olympic history, the gold was his after the Canadian was caught for doping.
It was this amazing confidence that characterised Lewis’s career throughout. It was this confidence that dramatically transformed him from a terrible runner as a kid — he used to be outpaced even by his younger sister Carol sometimes — to becoming the International Olympic Committee’s ‘Sportsman of the century’ and Sports Illustrated’s ‘Olympian of the century.’
Lewis’s journey typified the 100m race he came to symbolise: begin strongly, finish better.
In Los Angeles (LA), the 23-year-old American first matched his idol Jesse Owens’s 1936 feat of four golds. Shrewd planning — he decided to pass his final four jumps after touching 8.54m in his first attempt and fouling next — and a superb execution saw him finish on top of the podium in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump.
A dozen years and 14 hairstyles later (as he himself put it), Lewis was busy collecting the golden sand from the long jump pit as a souvenir in Atlanta 1996 after winning his ninth gold in Olympics.
Any other athlete would have walked into the sunset, satisfied with his eight gold and one silver medal haul. But Lewis was no ordinary athlete: he knew he had one big leap left in him, he knew he would have a golden sunset. How right he was! In between LA and Atlanta, Lewis enjoyed a high at Barcelona in 1992, when he outjumped Mike Powell. The year before, in the world championships in Tokyo, the two Americans were involved in what is regarded as the ‘greatest competition ever.’
That battle witnessed the first-ever leap past Bob Beamon’s phenomenal effort (8.90m) at the 1968 Mexico Games. Lewis registered a wind-aided 8.91m, but Powell’s response was incredible as he touched 8.95m (legal wind limit). Later, Powell himself described Lewis as the ‘greatest athlete ever.’
In the same competition he had a legal 8.87m that remained his best. Tokyo also saw him clock a world record 9.86s for the 100m.
Lewis is not just popular for his medals and achievements. He is also the best ambassador for the growing tribe of vegetarians all over the world.
For sheer longevity — he sprinted and jumped for 17 long years — ‘Carlesque’ is a term that can be added to the lexicon.
Bill will be clutching his son’s gold medal and smiling in heaven, knowing full well that nobody ruled the athletics world like King Carl did.