INDIANAPOLIS — Forget about the hairdos and the lip gloss and the “bigger than Michael Jackson” predictions. When Carl Lewis blows his whistle at the top of the long jump runway, people still come out to watch. They come out big.
So it was that most of the media at these Pan American games were baking in the mid-day sun inside a nearly sold out stadium Sunday, watching Lewis strip off his sweats, toss them in a pile, and shake loose those glorious muscles in another attempt to kill the ghost that lives inside the pit.
“This is his favorite track,” people whispered.
“Remember the 30-footer that was called foul?”
“He says he’s going to break it today.”
No, not really. The problem with setting the table for history is that you usually waste a lot of good food. Carl Lewis has been chasing Bob Beamon’s haunting 29-foot, 2 1/2-inch long jump mark since before he was wearing white sunglasses and orange tights. And now the tights and glasses are gone and the record is still there, and so are the expectations every time he jumps.
He never says he will get it. He never says he won’t. What Carl Lewis does mostly is drop hints here or there — “The conditions should be excellent,”
“I’m really jumping well right now,” “I think 30 feet is definitely possible”
— and we take it from there.
So everyone in the stadium Sunday was looking for a world record, and so were the network TV cameras and, as has been happening since Beamon leaped in 1968, the record did not come.
Oh, Lewis windmilled through the air, and brought gasps when he landed, and even raised an exultant fist on his winning jump — and yes, naturally, he did win the competition, and in fact, finished with four of the best 15 jumps of his life. But when he landed on his sixth and final attempt only 28-5 3/4 from the take-off board (kids, please don’t try this at home) a silent exhale rose from the crowd. No ghosts would die today. Same questions, same answers Shoot for heaven, and stars will disappoint you. In the crowded and stifling-hot press tent after the competition, Lewis sat before a microphone, and took questions about his day’s efforts.
“The wind? Was that the problem?” someone began.
“I think it was pretty obvious the wind made it extremely difficult,” Lewis said.
“The 4 by 100 relay (which Lewis had to run in the middle of the long jump competition), was that part of the problem?”
“I was definitely tired from that,” he said.
“Are you disappointed in missing the record?”
“No, I’m not disappointed . . . “
This was a press conference he has been having for years. Are you disappointed? What went wrong? Why didn’t you get it? It is always something
— the wind, the surface, the time of year. And people walk away mumbling about Lewis’ lack of any individual world records, sprints or jumps.
A word in his defense. On the track, Lewis is still a magnificent athlete, perhaps the best in the world. His very movements seem to draw the pleased nods of track gods, he is built so perfectly for his events; sleek where he need be, thick where he need be. And besides, he is fast as hell.
Having said that, let us say this: He has spoiled us. His four gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games, and the selfish way he conducted himself prior, during, and after, have placed the carrot of our affections in front of him — at exactly world record distance. Anything less will not do.
“If I can jump 28-8 1/2 like I did today, if I can jump six times over 28 feet (as he did earlier this year), if I can keep doing stuff like that, then there will be a day when the conditions are good, and when the right day is there . . . “
He didn’t finish. But then, he didn’t have to. Explanation is needed “Do you think the public is disappointed in you now when you don’t get a record, even if you win?” he was asked.
“I think the people who understand the event, who understand that the conditions were not good, that today was difficult, then they aren’t disappointed.”
“Do you think people understand the event that well?” he was asked.
“They would if it was explained to them,” he snapped. “Next question?”
“Can you comment on the victory itself?”
“Oh, I’m pleased,” he said. “That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked. A gold medal. A victory in a major international meet. I’ve never won a gold medal in the Pan American Games before. I’m really happy about that”
It was duly noted, jotted down on the pads. But the world record had not come, and the press conference ended with a number of reporters already outside the tent, skipping the last few questions. “Carl has to go,” announced the PR man finally, and Lewis ducked out the back, into the breeze of another ordinary day.