If you’ve ever wondered how much of sports is hype and how much is achievement, look no further than the man who said good-bye Saturday. He was the greatest athlete of our time. Quick. Do you know his name?
He dominated his game like no one before, but his name is not Michael Jordan. He lasted a near eternity in his sport, but he is not Cal Ripken. He was the champion of the world, but he is not Muhammad Ali. He excelled in more than one discipline, but he is not Deion Sanders.
He set records and streaks. He was the fastest man on Earth, the greatest physical talent of our era, maybe the biggest clutch performer ever. But he had one flaw.
People didn’t love him.
His name is Carl Lewis.
He said good-bye Saturday to a stadium full of people. The only problem is, the stadium was filled not for Lewis, but for a football game. In a sad reminder of the fickle nature of sports, Lewis — who could once run faster and jump farther than anyone on the planet — ran his last race, an exhibition relay, at halftime of the Houston Cougars game.
The greatest athlete of our time bid farewell during the hot dog break.
He acted like a superstar
Now, I have always had a special interest in Lewis, as he was the first sports story of my career. In 1982, I had begun writing for Sport magazine. I was dispatched to Lewis’ family house in New Jersey. I rang the bell four times. He finally came stumbling down the steps in his underwear.
He seemed like a decent enough kid then, all limbs and muscle, although he had a penchant for speaking about himself in one sense, and everyone else in another. Trying to sound more experienced than I was, I said something like:
“Be careful. If the media don’t like you, it can really make it hard for you.”
He nodded with a glazed-over look.
Who knew how wise a thing I was saying? And who knew how foolish he would be for not listening? Lewis went on to win four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. Yet, thanks to a manager who predicted “Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson,” and a persona that seemed too waxy and planned, Lewis got a golden handshake but never an embrace.
He won two more gold medals in 1988 in Seoul. Once again, the media focused on how Lewis behaved like a pampered star, sporting sunglasses and a makeup kit.
Two more gold medals for Lewis in the Barcelona Games in 1992 didn’t get as much attention as something he said about the relay team’s selection.
And even in 1996, in Atlanta, when he won his last gold medal, a tremendously dramatic moment, Lewis was eye of the storm in another relay controversy.
Now, starring in four Olympics is nearly impossible. But in between, Lewis was equally amazing. He won world titles in the 100 meters and 200 meters, he was the best relay anchor in history, and in the long jump, he went nearly 10 years without defeat. Let me explain how phenomenal that is. In the long jump, you can land just a little funny in the sand, drop your hand backward and lose. You could leap a world record distance, but see it wiped out because you stepped an extra quarter-inch on the take-off board.
Ten years of such dangerous odds — and he never lost? And last year, at the Olympics in Atlanta, when he was 35 years old, he was the last guy to make the U.S. team, but the first guy up on the victory stand. Another gold medal?
How’s that for clutch?
He didn’t fit the profile
But for all he did, Lewis never got the American corporate kiss. While far lesser athletes were getting famous through shoe commercials, Lewis was shunned by companies for being too arrogant. Now, the truth is, Lewis didn’t say that many arrogant things. He was never arrested, never did drugs, never beat up a girlfriend.
But the media had made up its mind on Lewis. He didn’t act like an American hero. When he tried, we said he was faking it.
Compare that to the fuss made over tiny gymnast Kerri Strug. She went to one Olympics, Lewis went to four. She won one team medal, Lewis won nine individuals. Yet she was beloved and got more U.S. endorsements than Lewis ever had.
Why? We liked what we saw in her. She showed the spirit. She played through pain. She wasn’t the best in her business, but she fit the profile.
So Lewis retires with a lap at a game. He was Jordan, Ripken, Deion and Ali, but he never got a tenth of their glory.
Athletes tell me they like sport for its purity. There is a clear winner and loser.
But that’s just part of the deal. In American sports today, you are judged not just by your body but by the shadow it casts. Carl Lewis, the greatest ever, never found his way into the good light. It was the only leap he couldn’t make.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.
Mitch’s new book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” is available at bookstores everywhere.