ATLANTA — Carl Lewis was standing next to me on the set of “Good Morning America” Friday, wearing frayed tan shorts, a matching top, and sandals with no socks. It was 7:45 a.m., and everyone was yawning. Carl was with his agent and some guy who is co-writing Carl’s new autobiography. None of them seemed in a hurry to get anywhere.
This was Carl’s second “Good Morning America” this week. He had been doing a steady stream of press conferences and interviews since winning his long jump gold medal Monday night. For all I knew — for all anyone knew — he hadn’t laced up a sneaker since Monday night.
Yet in less than two hours, at the Olympic Stadium, the U.S. relay team would run its first heat in the men’s 400 trials, and without even going to the track, Lewis was casting a huge shadow over the whole thing.
For those of you who missed this soap opera, let me bring you up to date:
* Monday: Lewis wins long jump, says afterward that he’d love to run in the relay and win a 10th gold medal, even though he’s not one of the six runners chosen for the relay team.
* Tuesday: Relay coach Erv Hunt says Lewis has never been on his squad, did not attend the mandatory training camp and, therefore, at this moment, thank you, is not needed.
* Wednesday: Jon Drummond, a member of the relay team, says it wouldn’t be fair to bump someone from a possible medal just to get Lewis another one. He reminds the media that, at the Olympic trials, in the 100 meters, Carl finished “butt-naked last.”
* Thursday: Lewis insists he is not lobbying for a spot, even though he keeps telling people how much he’d like one. Several NBC commentators — the network that would love another Lewis event — say Carl should be added to the team. Meanwhile, Leroy Burrell, a friend of Lewis’, suddenly develops Achilles problems and says he won’t be able to run in the relay. Rumors swirl that Hunt will be forced to replace Burrell with Lewis, even though he already has two alternates.
* Friday: Burrell mysteriously gets better. Hunt mysteriously says, “I’ll do whatever it takes to win the gold medal, and that may include Carl Lewis.” Carl does “Good Morning America.”
Wow. And you thought figure skating was dicey. As bad as the Dream Team
Let me say this as plainly as I can: If you believe in rules, Carl Lewis does not belong on this relay team. If you believe in sharing, teamwork, humility or equality, Carl Lewis does not belong on this relay team.
If you believe in hype, TV ratings, and breaking records above all else — Lewis is your guy.
And I hope you’re happy.
This whole thing is nothing more than a muscle move by Lewis to boost his Olympic legend. What good is a gold medal if you had to take it out of someone else’s hands? Lewis wouldn’t practice with the relay team. He refused to run in the heats — even though he still would get a medal if he did.
No, Lewis feels he should get the anchor leg in the final, the glory leg, so the cameras can catch him crossing the finish line. He has won relays before, he says. He can do it again. Never mind that he is not as fast as he used to be, that he did not make this Olympic team in a single sprint. Never mind that his would-be “teammates” have already said this about him:
Tim Harden: “Carl Lewis is done.”
Drummond: “Just because he won the long jump doesn’t mean he’s the best guy for this team.”
Dennis Mitchell: “I’ve worked very hard for this anchor leg. I’d hate to see it go away on a whim like this.”
Can you imagine the scene tonight? The team wins a gold medal, then takes a victory lap in two packs — three runners, arm-in-arm, and Carl behind, pointing to himself.
Sometimes these track guys make the Dream Team look like “Up With People.”
At the “Good Morning America” set, Lewis and his people defended themselves and blamed — of course — the coach. “The guy’s a college coach,” Carl’s agent, Joe Douglas, said with disgust. “He’s not even a professional.”
This is what we’ve come to: Olympians complaining their coaches aren’t professional. The rules don’t apply
Lewis has pulled this kind of stuff before:
* In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, he insisted that his friend Joe DeLoach be put on the relay team, replacing a guy who qualified under the rules. Lewis got his way. He also insisted on bringing his agent to practice, until the coach threatened to throw Lewis off the team.
* In 1992, Lewis did not qualify for the relay or any sprints. He blamed sinus problems. Once again, he lobbied for a relay spot and was eventually given the anchor leg on the 400. That team won a gold medal.
There are those who feel the same thing should happen tonight. They might want to remember a guy named Chip Jenkins, a budding lawyer who put his career on hold to try for his Olympic dream.
Jenkins’ father had been an Olympian. They treasured the idea of sharing that experience. And, thanks to his hard work, Jenkins made the 1992 Olympic team in the 1,600 relay. But at the last minute, he was bumped off the team by a guy who didn’t even run the 400 at the trials, but was added because of his popularity and past accomplishments. His name: Michael Johnson.
And at the time, Carl Lewis — yes, Carl Lewis! — wrote a syndicated column saying this wasn’t fair, this was wrong, Johnson shouldn’t get to take someone’s place who had worked so hard to earn it.
He sings a different tune today. Of course, Carl has always believed the rules apply to everyone else, not him.
Isn’t that how we got in this mess in the first place?