MOSCOW — Beautiful. Here was Carl Lewis sitting in the crowd at Lenin Stadium wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses, white pants and a tiger-skin shirt that came down to his knees. A human billboard. And he leaned back, surrounded by a small entourage, ignoring everybody.
Carl likes this; ignoring what he considers “other people” while doing everything he can to attract their attention. Back in 1984, that meant winning four gold medals at the Olympics, and appearing on the cover of Time magazine twice in three weeks, and paying an agent who said things such as
“Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson.” Only the joke was on Lewis. Because when the Games ended, America pulled in its welcome mat. He couldn’t get a single U.S. endorsement deal, while Olympic darlings such as Mary Lou Retton couldn’t get enough.
People chided Lewis for passing his last three Olympic attempts at Bob Beamon’s long jump record. And for seeming too . . . pre-packaged. Then rumors started that he might be gay, that he might take steroids, that he got too high on looking in the mirror — and the corporate types flipped their briefcases shut and went south.
Not that you blame them. Lewis was seen, at various times, wearing orange-and-black tights, lip gloss, a new wave Grace Jones haircut, white sunglasses, puffed sleeve shirts and eyebrow pencil. You stick your product on that. So Lewis went on winning races and losing points. And now, here he was, in Moscow of all places — where he’ll run tonight in the 100 meters at the Goodwill Games — 25 years old, half-faded from America’s memory, maybe the biggest commercial flop in recent sports history, and you had to wonder if the guy had any regrets about the whole thing.
“Look, let’s go through history here,” he said, sitting at a small table inside the stadium corridor. “Heroes, or leaders, I mean, how many are really represented fairly throughout their careers? Take Jesse Owens, a big inspiration. Everybody says Jesse is a great man. But Jesse had to race horses to make money, OK?”
Ah. You see. That’s the kind of stuff that gets him in trouble. Don’t mix Jesse and horses, Carl. Come on. But then, ah, well. Lewis has long had a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth — both of which move at the same speed. That’s his problem.
That and an ego that can’t fit in the door. Here is the gospel according to Carl on the 1984 Olympics: “The one death fall of those Games was that everybody was so concerned about money. . . . Everyone felt everyone had to take advantage. I don’t have to take advantage of anything. I love to compete. Money isn’t a major issue to me. I don’t have
to run out and jump on every little corporate dollar I can find.”
Right. This comes from a man whose agent once said, “We want Carl to be associated with one company, like Bob Hope with Texaco.” A guy who was peddling his own TV special before the torch was lit in LA. Remember when Lewis was photographed for Newsweek in front of his small mansion in Houston, while his virgin-white Samoyed looked on? Inside the house was his collection of Waterford crystal. The BMW was in the garage. And all this was before the Olympics.
True, he “loves to compete.” As long as the price is right. There were stories that Lewis turned down $100,000 for a single meet once. And you might remember, when he was drafted late by the Dallas Cowboys for a possible football future, he said no way, no way, unless they were willing to pay $1 million a year. Then, let’s talk.
And he wonders why McDonald’s doesn’t call back.
Aren’t you disappointed in the way you’re perceived?” I asked him.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said, “people come to me every day, tons of people, and 90 percent who mention the Olympics say, ‘Boy, it was so wrong the way the press treated you. We just saw you win and it was great for America.’ So I don’t think it’s the people. I think it’s the representation.”
“You mean the press?” I said.
“Well, suit yourself,” he said, laughing.
Natch. When the going gets tough, the tough blame the media. Such otherwise angelic guys as Joaquin Andujar, Ralph Sampson and Larry Holmes have recently realized that their only problem is evil reporters. Lewis, with typical speed, reached the tape on that one a while ago.
“The whole world watched on TV (the Olympics) and they saw me compete and compete well, and then they turn around and heard ‘This guy’s an evil person.’ They were confused.
“People can say anything. I can say you’re mentally retarded, right? (Well, he can say it.) And maybe people will pick it up and it will spread. That’s what happened to me. Some athlete says, ‘I think Carl’s on steroids.’ And people wrote it with no substantiation.
“But hey, I don’t have any bitterness towards anyone. Whatever other athletes do is their business, whatever the press does is their business, because I’m enjoying my life. Everyone prints rumors from people who are losing to me. . . . So, that’s the whole thing.”
Got that? Now, yes, they still are losing to Lewis in most everything he tries. He hasn’t lost a long jump competition since 1981. He rarely loses in the 100 or 200 meters, and his form and fluid movement are simply remarkable. So, much to the dismay of his fellow athletes — most of whom would love to see Carl get his tail waxed — Lewis remains, in track and field, king of the hill. “I am still the No. 1 athlete in the world,” he said.
Humility doesn’t come in his size.
Then again, there’s this business of no world records next to his name; not in the long jump, the 100 or the 200. During 1984, Lewis said he would concentrate on four gold medals and go for records in 1985. In 1985, he suffered a few injuries and set his sights on 1986. Now he says, “I’m being a little passive. Maybe the records will come next year, maybe the year after.”
Well, you can only watch a guy run straight ahead so many times before you want something . . . more. History, maybe.
But Lewis runs when he wants, jumps when he wants, pushes when he wants, and he’ll be the first to tell you that’s what matters.
He blames his lack of corporate hook-ups on “too much commitment time” demanded by the companies. “They want you for 40, 50 days a year,” he said, scowling. Yeah. What a drag. And at such low rates. What’s Michael Jackson getting, $12 million?
“My life,” Lewis said, “is 100 years. Or whatever. My life wasn’t the 1984 Olympic Games. It ends the day I die, which could be whenever, maybe 50 years from now. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘He made a mistake.’ But we didn’t know what was going to happen. I got more publicity before the Olympics than any athlete ever got after them.”
“Including yourself,” I reminded him.
“Well, actually,” he said, “I got lots of publicity after the Olympics. It’s just that most of it was negative.”
Hey! He made a joke. So what do you make of Carl Lewis now? How anyone could win four gold medals in the biggest sports event of the decade and still come out smelling bad is a pretty neat accomplishment. On the scale of laid eggs, you’d have to call that an omelet’s worth.
But it doesn’t seem to have fazed him. He still separates himself from the rest of the athletic world, still plugs his singing and acting as if someone cares, still dresses like some metasexual mannequin in a Greenwich Village window. Still runs and jumps. Fast and far. Still blames someone else.
I have this hope for Lewis. This is my hope: that at the end of the day, when he washes off the makeup and hangs up the furs and puts the Gucci boots in the closet, and it’s just him, alone in his room, that he looks over his majestic physical self and his glorious potential and realizes it’s too great a gift for him to ruin by being a dork. But this is just a hope.
“When you are a leader, of course,” he said, wrapping up his little talk,
“you stand out, and that sets you up for a barrage. People now are saying,
“Oh, Carl, you’re not worth anything after the Games.’ But I’m probably more well-known now than I was during or after LA. I’m still competing, I made a movie that’ll be out soon. I’m bigger, in terms of people knowing me, than I was before.
“I know this. In 20 or 30 years from now, people won’t remember some of the other athletes. But they’ll look back and remember my performances.”
Then again, maybe we won’t.