BARCELONA, Spain — I got Carl Lewis out of bed once. He was a college kid, spending the summer at his parents’ house in New Jersey. I arrived for an interview — you could do that with Carl back then — and he had overslept. I rang the bell. I rang again. Finally, he came wobbling down the steps, wearing his underwear, rubbing his eyes.
Although I’ve forgotten much of that morning, I still remember this: He never said, “Sorry.” He was barely known then, hadn’t won a single Olympic medal or a world championship, had no major endorsements, no record albums, no neon-colored track suits, no Japanese children chasing him across a parking lot.
He still didn’t apologize. And he still doesn’t. It seemed enough to him that morning to plop down in the couch, yawn and say, “I’m here, aren’t I?” Just as Wednesday night, a decade later, he peeled off his sweats, raced down the runway, flew through the air, and nailed a qualifying leap that would have won every Olympic long jump in history. The message now: “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
He is still here. Dump all the mud you like on Lewis, he probably deserves it, but he is still here. Mary Lou Retton peaked alongside him in 1984, and now Mary Lou is this elfin corporate spokeswoman wearing sequined shorts. Greg Louganis, maybe the best diver ever, matched Lewis for two Olympics, gold to gold. But now Louganis is sporting makeup, trying to get a soap opera.
And Carl is still here.
And we are still trying to figure him out.
And I have to say this: Why?
Every four years, the American media attempt to crawl inside Carl Lewis’ head, looking for, I don’t know, the black box or something. We analyze him. We take him apart. There is always a theme. This time, with Lewis a 31-year-old athletic miracle — aren’t you supposed to get slower as you get older? — the theme is “lack of appreciation.” Time magazine asked “Why Isn’t Carl an American Folk Hero?” GQ spent five blathering pages for an article titled, “The Unloved One.”
The other day, I asked Carl whether he felt “unloved.” You know what he said?
“Not at all. The American public has always been great to me. I don’t know what these writers are trying to get at. Basically, everything’s fine.”
So in Carl’s mind, he is getting what he wants.
And in my mind, he is getting what he deserves.
Who says Carl Lewis should be bigger than he is? A folk hero? Come on. How many track and field athletes have ever reached that status? There was Bruce Jenner — who, by the way, is looking more and more like a Betty Jenner these days, thanks to a plastic surgeon — and Bruce didn’t last too long himself. Couple of Wheaties boxes.
There was Edwin Moses, the superb hurdler, but he came pre- packaged: the thinking man’s superstar, sponsored by Kodak. He lasted for a while, until the cops arrested him for trying to solicit a prostitute.
Who else? You have to go back to Jesse Owens. And for all his popularity, Owens had to race against horses to earn a living. So it’s not like we have this great tradition of turning our track and field stars into Michael Jordan.
Besides, Lewis is afflicted with “lack of surprise” syndrome, something we find unforgivable at Olympic Games. There must be an enemy. There must be a battle. And there must be something unexpected. That’s what America wants. And it’s one thing Carl has never been able to deliver. Even being the “clean” guy when Ben Johnson was nabbed for steroids didn’t do it.
You know who really suffered from the 1980 Olympic boycott? Lewis. He made the team, was bound for Moscow, and, at 19 years old, was still an enthusiastic, fresh-faced, hungry bundle of talent. Can you imagine if he came out of nowhere to win the long jump that year, or anchor a gold-medal 400-meter relay team?
“WHO IS CARL LEWIS?” the headlines might have read. “AND HOW CAN WE GET OUR KIDS TO BE LIKE HIM?”
Instead, by 1984, the wrapping was off. Lewis was a boom box at full volume. He came to the LA Games as a world champion, and the most marketing-conscious track star since Roger Penske. He rented a bungalow, referred all calls to his agent and began to sink under the weight of his arrogant expectations.
“Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson,” Joe Douglas, the agent, predicted. But Joe made one mistake. He forgot to hire some competition. With no Soviets, East Germans or other bad guys — their boycott, remember? — American athletes had to push themselves. But here was Carl, in the LA Coliseum, taking one stab at the long jump, winning it easily, and skipping five other chances to break Bob Beamon’s magical record — while just down the street, little gymnasts were popping blood vessels to eke out one more spin off the balance beam. Lewis claimed he was “saving himself” to win gold in other events. But America had all the gold it could swallow that year; what it wanted was drama. Carl was booed.
So he got off on the wrong Olympic foot. And your first Olympics, like your first term as president, tend to stick with you. You can’t just wipe the slate clean. Not that Lewis wanted to. His medals made him plenty big in Europe and Asia — where they couldn’t understand what he was saying — and there he earned exorbitant appearance fees, reaching $100,000 a meet. He made endorsement deals with foreign companies. He cut a record that went gold in Sweden — this, from the nation that gave us Abba — and he was able to travel by limo and first-class compartment. True, he lived in Houston, and if he wanted kids to chase him for autographs, he had to go to Stuttgart or Tokyo.
So? Why do you think they invented airplanes?
Yet America owns no apologies for not inviting Carl to dinner. Wilt Chamberlain revolutionized basketball, but was scorned for most of his career. Pete Rose was a hitter’s hitter — and maybe the last person you wanted near your kids.
In his field, Lewis is a legend. Leroy Burrell, his rival in the 100, says Lewis “is the single greatest athlete our sport has ever produced.” Dennis Mitchell, another rival, says Lewis “is the greatest athlete in the world.” Mike Powell, the long jumper who needed a world record last summer to break Lewis’ 10-year winning streak says, “The record is great, but to really beat Carl, you have to beat him at an Olympics. Otherwise, he’s still the best.”
And these people don’t even like Lewis that much.
So insiders throw roses at his feet. And the outside world? Well. Hey. Nobody told Lewis to go Pluto on us. But he did. He began wearing makeup, running in orange tights, singing and designing clothes — including shiny brown track suits that are very close to the skin tone of the sprinters in his posse, a.k.a. the Santa Monica Track Club. In other words, when they wore these suits, they looked like they were reviving the movie, “The Nude Bomb.”
Carl thought that was “hot.” But do we really expect the two-car-garage family in Topeka, Kan., to appreciate that kind of . . . art? Here’s a guy making a million a year and driving a Ferrari and walking through the Opening Ceremonies last week wearing sunglasses and pressing a cellular phone to his ear. Sorry, Time. “Lack of appreciation” just won’t play in the lowlands.
Besides, Carl himself — who would rather be adored than loved — doesn’t feel all that empty inside. “I don’t worry about that stuff. The media is always telling me, ‘Carl, this is how you feel.’ I wish life was that easy. Then I could stay at home, call a few people, and find out what my day would be like. Ha ha.”
Hey. He made a joke.
Free of charge.
But having said that, I must say this: Carl Lewis is a money player. Seven Olympic finals: six gold medals, one silver. Never chokes. Never pops a muscle in a big race. Look at the guys who are sprinting for us now. Big difference, huh?
I think Lewis should have been in the 100 meters here. I think he would have won. You can’t tell me that the bulging Brit, Linford Christie, at 34, has anything in his tank that Lewis doesn’t. “I would have been a factor,” Carl allows.
But he didn’t qualify. Had “the worst meet of my life” in the U.S. Olympic trials last month, later discovering he was suffering a virus that weakened his entire system. That virus probably cost him some serious history — like three consecutive “fastest man in the world” titles. And instead, America has Burrell choking in the 100 final, and Michael Johnson — who last month said
“Carl’s time is over, I’m the best now” — failing to get past the semifinals of the 200. Hey. Lewis may get sick. But he never exits in a semifinal.
All of which makes tonight’s long jump — his showdown with Powell, the man who broke his winning streak — a thing worth staying up for. With no sprints to worry about, Lewis hasn’t had this much available Olympic energy since the plane was grounded in 1980. His single qualifying jump Wednesday night, 28 feet, 5 3/4 inches, is farther than most long jumpers have ever gone in their lives. Powell is semi-injured. Lewis doesn’t care.
“I’m ready to go farther,” he says.
America is ready to watch. Maybe if he busts it, maybe if he breaks Powell, goes past 30 feet, does all the things we have been expecting all these years, maybe he’ll reach some level that makes even GQ happy. But I doubt it. Running and jumping is still something that makes America yawn all but two weeks every four years. And Carl still likes designing clothes,
And there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s got money. He’s got fame. He’s got the begrudging awe of everyone in his field. Who says he needs a group hug from America? Trust me here. Carl Lewis is plenty happy. And after all these years, he still lives by a pretty basic philosophy: Being great means never having to say you’re sorry.
Or get up early.