ATLANTA — The bright lights were waiting, a stadium full of flashbulbs, and Carl Lewis is not one to shy away from the heat. His routine
— which never varies, not this week, not this year, not this Olympics — began anew at the far end of the long jump runway. He stood there, mumbling a religious mantra, and then he began to move. He picked up speed, faster, faster, and soon his hands were slicing through the air like bread knives, and his eyes were locked on the takeoff board. He slammed that board at full throttle and ran up into the air, legs still churning, arms windmilling like a bird fluttering toward a ledge. Then, as gravity took him down, he kicked out for a landing, splashing into a pit of sand and a sea of white flashes, snapshots for history.

Starry, starry night. In his final Olympic moment, Carl Lewis was everything people wanted him to be — happy, appreciative, and yes, even surprised. He glanced at his mark in the sand, measured it with his eyes against the board, then fell to the ground as the crowd erupted and the scoreboard flashed what he had been waiting for: He was in the lead.

And when Lewis leads, nobody catches him.

Not this week. Not this year. Not this Olympics. Not ever. At 35, Lewis might not be the athlete he once was, but in many ways, he is more, the sum of all he has done. We will no longer measure him one Olympics at a time, but all Olympics put together. Four Summer Games. Four straight gold medals in one event — the only man to do that besides the indefatigable discus ace, Al Oerter. And Oerter didn’t also win gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters and relay sprints — and, believe me, Al was never called “fastest man in the world.”

Lewis did all that. He is the greatest athlete in track and field history, arguably the greatest athlete America has ever produced. And lest anyone think he lacks the quality that defines champions like Michael Jordan and Reggie Jackson — the ability to step up when it most matters — consider this:

Lewis only made this Olympic team by an inch.

He won the gold by more than eight.

Starry, starry night. He leaps ahead of the crowd

“How did you all get into my dream?” said a grinning Lewis, greeting the press after his victory lap with an American flag, a lap that was met with only cheers — unlike the cynical response that greeted him 12 years ago on a similar lap in Los Angeles. “I still don’t feel like I’ve woken up. I won tonight by doing it the only way I know how to do it — full speed ahead.”

And, for everyone else, anchors down. This was not, in truth, the world’s greatest long jump competition. The evening wind was blowing into the jumpers’ faces, and every time you looked up, someone was fouling, passing or lying dejected in the dirt. Lewis won the gold with a leap (27 feet, 10 3/4 inches) that was shorter than his winning jumps in Barcelona, Seoul and LA. Truth is, Lewis jumped farther than 27-10 3/4 in college. His golden leap Monday night would only have earned him a bronze medal four years ago.

Aren’t the numbers supposed to improve as time goes by?

Well. You have to factor in the Lewis effect. Once Carl puts a big jump out there, at least in the Olympic Games, other competitors tend to wither. Remember:

In 1984, Lewis won with his first jump. No one else came close.

In 1988, he was ahead from the start and demoralized the field with an even better jump on his fourth attempt.

In 1992, his first jump was never equaled.

And here, back on American soil, where he began his Olympic career, Lewis once again laid a big hurt on the field, this time on his third jump, putting the bar out where others were capable of reaching physically — but not mentally. Let them say what they will. Other jumpers are still in awe of Lewis at the biggest events — the way defenders gape at Michael Jordan as he scores over them in the fourth quarter.

“I’m only 29, and my body feels like it’s 60 years old,” admitted bronze medalist Joe Greene. “Carl is 35. I don’t know how he does it.”

Added silver medalist James Beckford of Jamaica: “It’s an honor for me to jump against Carl Lewis.”

So, in truth, once he went ahead, Lewis was competing against himself. As he sat on the infield, watching his competitors fall, he reflected on the unusually bumpy road his final Summer Games had demanded.

He had been terrible at the Olympic trials, having earned the third and final spot on the team by a mere inch. And Sunday night, he needed his third and final jump just to get to the finals on Monday. Yet, in an odd way, this made Lewis that much more human — and that much more attractive to fans.

“You know, I’ve been on the circuit since 1981,” he said, “and it’s been like 15 years since I’ve felt like a regular athlete, where if you win people say, ‘Great,’ and if you lose people say, ‘Well, he wasn’t supposed to win.’

He said this as if he were surprised.

“What are you going to do now?” someone asked.

“Well,” he said looking at the Olympic officials, “they may not like this very much in security, but for the first time since I’ve been coming to the Olympics, I’m gonna go see some other events. I want to see other athletes for a change.”

Carl Lewis? Watching other athletes?

Starry, starry night. He was the best ever

Now, it’s true, Lewis has made a lot of enemies over the years. One of the first was a guy named Larry Myricks, who was also a long jumper, an awfully good one. In fact, Myricks was the best America had until Carl came along.

Then Myricks began losing to the kid. And soon, he was the bridesmaid of the sand pit, always No. 2. Lewis would not lose a long jump for a decade.

This, of course, was during the time when Lewis was bragging about how big

he would be, how much money he would make, how he was taking acting lessons, and his agent had predicted: “Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson.” Other track athletes couldn’t stand Lewis’ preening, his brashness, his aloof manner with them and his calculated manner with the media.

“One day, Carl’s gonna lose a long jump,” Myricks said, “and there’s gonna be some serious celebrating.”

Guess again. Lewis has dropped long jumps and sprints in lesser meets. But he has raced two Olympic 100s, got gold in both, raced two Olympic 200s, got gold in one, silver in another — and won every Olympic long jump he ever tried. Four up. Four down.

He will try no more. The book is closed. No one will get to laugh. Not this week. Not this year. Not this Olympics. Not ever.

So whether he is embraced by the public now, whether he gets all those endorsement deals he missed and his face is plastered everywhere you look — it doesn’t really matter. Track and field is about time and distance, and the numbers on Lewis will never lie. The best there is. The best there ever was.

On Monday night, when the last challenger landed short in the pit, Lewis raced down the runway, his hands over his head, waving to his family, then took off for his victory lap.

Few people realized he still had one jump left. He never took it. It sits there forever, in an empty stadium, the only thing he ever left behind at the Olympics. The mind dances with the possibilities.

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