ATLANTA — Carl Lewis was a pioneer in track and field. Unfortunately, he pioneered arrogance.
He had an agent who declared, “Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson.” He wore Day-Glo track suits and sunglasses. He blew off interviewers. He talked about himself in the third person. He stayed in a ritzy hotel outside of the athletes’ village at his first Olympic Games, in Los Angeles, and when his chance came to break Bob Beamon’s long jump record — the thing we had been hearing about for years — he passed. Having already clinched the gold, Lewis pulled on his sweats, preferring to save himself for other medals. America groaned and gave him the get-lost gesture.
He never found his way back.
Today, all kinds of Olympians are doing the same things Lewis did back then. They are arrogant. They stay outside the village. They talk about how much money they’re going to make after their medals. To be honest, many of them aren’t even as friendly as Lewis, who can be an affable guy.
But it doesn’t matter. The public remembers your first impression, and Lewis’ first impression, in that famous Newsweek photo in 1984 with all those gold medals around his neck, was a guy who was thinking, “Told ya.”
Now here comes Lewis again, back like that tornado in “Twister,” only he is losing steam, he is down to the final gusts. The room for his one-and-only press conference Friday was only half-full. I remember when he did these in LA and Seoul, reporters were stepping on each others’ heads just to get a glimpse of him.
The public never forgave him
Of course, back then, Lewis was competing in three or four events — not just the long jump, but the 400-meter relay, the 200 and 100 meters, the race for fastest man in the world. He used to be that, you know: fastest man in the world. But Friday, he was talking to reporters, while several miles away, at the Olympic Stadium, younger sprinters were finishing their first heats in the 100. Someone else is the fastest man in the world now. Lewis has been caught, passed and left behind. At 35, he didn’t make the U.S. team in any sprint.
He was here to jump and then retire.
Now I will admit a certain disposition toward Lewis. He grew up near me, and I remember hearing about him when I was a junior on my high school track team and he was still in eighth grade. That’s right. Eighth grade. He was like this big noise coming over the mountain. Before his first Olympics, when he was still living with his parents in Willingboro, N.J., I interviewed him as one of my first sports assignments. I rang his bell several times, and he finally stumbled down the steps in his underwear, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He answered the door that way. Even then, he wasn’t very self-conscious.
Through the years, I watched his big noise thunder across the world stage, winning eight gold medals in three Olympics and running the table in the long jump. Can you imagine? Nobody beats him in nearly 10 years?
I kept waiting for Lewis to come around. To soften up. But he kept putting his foot in his mouth. He still moved and spoke as if he were a member of some royal family. He sang the national anthem once at a sporting event, and people yelled at him to put a sock in his mouth.
It’s funny. In the long jump, when you land in the pit, you pop up and wipe the sand from your thighs. Lewis kept popping up, but he never wiped away the resentment.
This, by the way, is a man the rest of the world calls “the greatest athlete in the history of track and field.”
Being the best just isn’t enough
So Friday, I waited through his news conference, and out in the hallway, I was able to corner Lewis — along with 30 other curious inquisitors. I wanted to see if he had changed, if he realized, in his twilight, that humility, grace and a gentle poke at yourself go a lot further than an endorsement contract.
“You’re as good as Michael Jordan is in his sport,” I said. “You’ve starred in three Olympics. Why didn’t you become bigger in America?”
I was hoping maybe he would say “because I made some mistakes. I acted too aloof. I’m smarter now.”
Instead, Lewis said: “If you look at the numbers, track and field is like the 30th-most popular sport in the U.S., and I’m a heck of a lot higher than that. What other athlete is that much bigger than his sport? There’s no question I’m in the top 10 in America is terms of notoriety.”
See? It’s not that he’s inaccurate. It’s just that he’s the one saying it.
“People tell me I’m not as popular as I should be, but I don’t see it,” Lewis said. “People recognize me wherever I go. I wish I was a little less popular. I could lead a more normal life.”
I looked around at the crowd of reporters. I’m not sure there was one of them who believed him.
I feel bad for Lewis because he really is the best we’ve ever seen, and he’s no worse than a lot of people we forgive in sports. But when it comes to the Olympics, America is into brave little gymnasts who will break an ankle for the team. Being the greatest ever doesn’t necessarily mean that much.
Maybe if Lewis can pull one more miracle — as an underdog, for he is not even favored in Monday’s long jump — then the tides will turn, and the music will get sweeter and America will embrace him, on his way out the door, as the star he always wanted to be.
Maybe, maybe not. He’s got one more Olympic night. No sprints. No relays. He is back where we first discovered him, in the long jump pit. The question is, will he ever get out of the dirt?