INDIANAPOLIS — Forget about the Grace Jones hairdo and the lip gloss and the sunglasses and his agent’s “bigger than Michael Jackson” predictions. When Carl Lewis blows his trumpet at the top of the long jump runway, people still drop what they’re doing and watch. So it was that most of the media at these Pan American Games were sitting in the midday heat Sunday, in a nearly sold-out track stadium, as Lewis stripped off his sweats and shook loose those glorious muscles, in another attempt to kill the ghost that lives inside the pit.
“This is his favorite track,” people whispered.
“Remember the 30-footer they called foul?”
“He says he’s going to break it today.”
Not really. The problem with setting the table for history is that you waste a lot of food. It rarely shows. Carl Lewis has been chasing Bob Beamon’s haunting 29-foot, 2 1/2-inch long jump mark since before he started wearing orange tights and carrying a makeup kit. And now the tights are gone and the makeup, too, and the record is still there; and so are the expectations every time he jumps.
The record. Set in 1968, it is still considered one of man’s greatest athletic feats. Lewis never exactly says he will get it. He never says he won’t. What Lewis mostly does is drop hints — “The conditions should be excellent”; “I’m really jumping well right now”; “I think 30 feet is definitely possible” — and we take it from there.
He did it this week, because he was back at the site of his personal-best legal jump (28-10 1/4, set in 1983). Fast runway. Favorable wind. The record? Maybe? Certainly fans here were looking for it, and so was CBS-TV, and as Lewis stared at his feet, everything went hush, and he broke into his charge, sprinting down the runway toward the demon in the sand. . . . Same questions, same answers And once again, it did not succumb.
Oh, Lewis windmilled through the air, jump after jump, and brought gasps when he landed, and even raised an exultant fist on his winning effort — and yes, naturally, he did win the event, and in fact, finished with four of the best 15 jumps of his life — but when he landed on his sixth and final attempt only 28-5 3/4 from the takeoff board, a silent exhale rose from the crowd. The people could go home. No ghosts would die today.
“Were you disappointed? . . . ” came the first question in the crowded press tent afterward. He had just won a gold medal. He had just set a Pan Am record
— 28-8 1/2. But this is the same press conference he has been having for years: What went wrong? Why didn’t you get it? It is always something — the wind, the surface, the time of year. And people whisper about Lewis’ lack of any individual world records, sprints or jumps.
A word in his defense. Lewis is a magnificent athlete. His very movement seems to draw the sighs of track gods; so perfectly is he built for his field.
He is fast as breath, and no one has matched his consistent excellence in long-jumping. Ever.
Having said that, let us say this: He blew it. By rights, Carl Lewis should never have to comb his hair again. His four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics should have cemented him to our good graces for eternity. But he behaved like a jerk — prior, during and after — and now the carrot of our affections seems to dangle in front of him at world-record distance. Anything less will not do.
‘Don’t give up on me’ So they ask about disappointment, and sometimes he blames the wind (as he did Sunday) and sometimes the runway, and sometimes the media, and sometimes he just shrugs and says wait.
“If I can jump like I did today, or jump six times over 28 feet (as he did in a meet in this spring), if I can keep doing stuff like that, then there will be a day when the conditions are good, and . . .
He didn’t finish. But then, he didn’t have to.
Such is the curious life of Carl Lewis. His 51 straight long- jump victories are the best running show in his sport. But in some ways, he loses each time he returns without Beamon’s shoes. Beamon was 21 when he set his mark. Jesse Owens — who held the record for a quarter century — was 21.
Carl Lewis is now 26. In 1984 he said records were second to Olympic gold. In 1985 he said “next year.” In 1986 he said “next year.”
“Hey,” Lewis said to a network TV audience Sunday, “I can still do it. I’m not too old yet. Keep rooting, don’t give up on me. . . . “
It was a strange sentence from a man who in 1984 made the cover of Time twice in three weeks. Perhaps he knows this cannot go on forever. And neither can he. Maybe he shouldn’t have to be greater than great, but for some reason, he does. “Hey, I’m happy with my performance today,” he said in that press conference. “I’ve never won a gold medal in the Pan Am Games before. That shouldn’t be overlooked.”
He said it earnestly, but a number of reporters were already outside the tent, searching for a bus back to the hotel. “Carl has to go,” announced the PR man finally, and Lewis ducked out the back, into the heat of another ordinary day.