SEOUL, South Korea — We now come to the burning question: Can Carl Lewis be repackaged? The Summer Olympics are in full stride once more — it seems like yesterday we were in Los Angeles, doesn’t it? — and look, there he is again, King Carl, sitting on top of those five rings, his long legs crossed in slender elegance.
“Hi,” he seems to say. “Remember me?”
Sure. And that may be his problem. It is hard to forget a man who once wore, in no particular order, orange tights, lip gloss, lizard skin boots and white, horn-rimmed sunglasses; a man who said things like “failure doesn’t loom in me”; a man who maintains that, were he not the world’s greatest athlete, he would be perhaps the world’s greatest singer, or the world’s greatest businessman, or the world’s greatest collector of Waterford crystal. But alas, his particular burden is to be so blessed and so gifted that he won four gold medals in the 1984 Olympics, and everyone treated him as if he had bad breath.
“Old news,” says Carl. “Things are different this time around.” He claims a new approach to money (stop talking), a new approach to media (never stop talking) and ta-da, a new Olympics, which means four more gold-medal chances, starting tonight in the 100 meters. The best new thing he has, however, is a bona fide opponent — a man seemingly sent by the Greek Gods of Public Relations, who decreed that all ups and no downs make Carl Lewis a snooze.
It is Johnson, not Lewis, who now owns the world record of 9.83 seconds. It is Johnson who has won six of their last eight meetings. And it is Johnson, a shy yet brooding Canadian cannonball, who says he will win here in Seoul.
“We’ll see,” says Lewis. But lo and behold, America, could that be, on that famous upper lip, the one that has quivered through acting lessons, a pop record, and never a single apology, a lonely bead of . . . sweat?
Somebody pat that with makeup, will ya?
And then ignore it. If there is an ounce of worry in Carl Lewis, 27, no one has ever seen it. He will win tonight, I’m telling you that right now, because you can be big in track and field without the title “World’s Fastest Human,” but you can never be The Biggest. And that, as anyone who knows him will tell you, is something Carl Lewis considers his birthright. You could sooner steal his eyelashes.
“I don’t need Ben,” he said, when asked whether the rivalry would help peak interest, and in this case he may be right: There are certain moments you just feel that certain athletes will never surrender — Sonny Liston for Cassius Clay, the 1936 Olympics for Jesse Owens — and I think tonight’s 10-second dash for Lewis is another.
But hey, I could be wrong. And it might do the man good to have his floor waxed, athletically speaking. A little Olympic humility. The real kind. Not the stuff he’s putting out these days with his new “accessibility.” I have known Carl Lewis since we attended rival high schools in south Jersey. I would like to tell you he is a changed man: I can’t.
“I get a lot of attention,” said Lewis matter-of-factly in a massive press conference Wednesday. “Like here, people here come out just to watch me shop. It’s amazing. They stand outside the door and watch me through the window, then they watch me get into my car and they watch me leave.
“But I try not to get caught up in that aura. You can start to think you’re
bigger than life. But I’m not. I’m just Carl Lewis.”
Of course, he said this while flanked by his agent, his press liaison, 20 security guards and at least 800 reporters.
Oh, Carl. You nut.
Personally, and don’t take this the wrong way, I think it is time for Lewis to shut up. For his own good. After all, the defending Olympic champion in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the long jump already has tried every possible form of conversation, from cocky (“I am limitless”) to cool (“Most other athletes are jealous of me”) to dull (which is his latest phase, avoiding controversy by answering the simplest of questions with a five-minute avalanche of “tremendous” and “outstanding,” which really boils down to: “I’m not going to answer that question.”).
And where has it gotten him?
REPORTER: Carl, how much money did you make last year?
CARL: The reason I’m competing isn’t about the money; it’s that people feel good when they watch me compete, they scream, they yell, they can’t believe it. Everyone made a big deal of the money Ben and I made racing in Zurich. But the president of my fan club read me a letter from a little boy who said he watched the race on TV and was so happy that I won he jumped up and down for 30 minutes. And if I can say to a kid like that don’t take drugs and don’t drink and drive, that’s where the emphasis is.
REPORTER: Carl, how much money did you make last year?
You see how it goes. In the comedy film “Ghostbusters,” there is a scene where Bill Murray tries to lure a matronly ghost into conversation. (“Hello? Miss? Where are you from . . . originally?”) The spectre whirls, lets out an evil hiss, and Murray slinks back to his colleagues and mumbles: “OK. The usual stuff isn’t working.”
The usual stuff isn’t working for Lewis. And neither is the new stuff. Blame us, Carl. Blame the media. Maybe we have just seen too many Lewis poses, too many makeup kits, too many speeches about “the love of the sport” while your agent negotiated $250,000 for a single race. But hey. Forget us. You, Carl, have a crack at history here. No one has ever won two consecutive Olympic medals in any of your three solo events. This is big.
Which is why I recommend total silence. Can you imagine if Lewis never said anything? Just ran his races and made his jumps and smiled and handed a flag to a little kid? The man would be huge. Mega-star. He already has that status in Asia and Europe, where they love him, they mob him, and I maintain the reason they do and America doesn’t is simple: They don’t understand a word he says.
“What the American public doesn’t realize . . . ” he begins when asked why he didn’t go for the those last four long jumps in 1984.
“What the American public doesn’t see . . . ” he begins when asked why he lacks a single major endorsement deal in the U.S.
“What the American public doesn’t understand . . . ” he begins when asked why so many of his track peers find him intolerable.
Unfortunately, what Carl Lewis doesn’t understand about the American public is that it doesn’t like to be told how to adopt its heroes. It doesn’t want instructions. Janet Evans. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Jeff Blatnick. America wants . . . sincerity.
You can’t manufacture this. Although Lewis is trying. He has purposefully made himself more accessible these Olympics. He has toned down the clothes and makeup, at least during press conferences. He even brought his mother on stage with him Wednesday before the world’s microphones (“She’s been a tremendous influence . . . through thick and thin . . . “)
Which is nice, although most athletes have handled the media here without parental guidance. But love of family has never been questioned about Lewis. Nor has loyalty to staff (including agent Joe Douglas, who once said his client would be “bigger than Michael Jackson” and, remarkably, still has his job). But this has always been true about Carl Lewis: He is fascinated with anything and anybody concerning himself. And because he believes he can be whatever he chooses, this latest dive into “humility”‘ is really just Lewis crawling to a different face of his mountain and admiring the view.
Years ago, Lewis invented a game with a track buddy in which the friend, at any given moment, would yell “Camera!” — and Lewis would freeze and smile for make-believe flashbulbs.
We’re talking serious preparation here.
And tonight, he runs. Tonight, all that counts is speed, which, for Lewis, comes in the middle and end of the 100, and, for Johnson, comes right out of the blocks. TV, radio, magazines and newspapers all will be focused on that finish line. Ten seconds; winner take the world.
“I don’t see this as me versus Ben,” Lewis said. “I’m just focusing on my best race.”
“What would winning the gold medal mean?”
“Well, it would be a tremendous accomplishment because one thing I’ve always been able to do in my life is persevere. I’ve had some hard times in track and field, but I’ve persevered. I was told you can’t be a sprinter and a jumper, but I persevered. I’ve had some difficult moments with the media, but I’ve persevered.”
And here we are. Tonight begins the four-gold 1988 odyssey. Will it work? Can Carl Lewis be repackaged? Can he emerge from these Olympics gilded and forgiven, like a road-weary car that comes gleaming bright out of the car wash?
That, as politicians say, is in the hands of the voters. He’s going to win tonight, at least I hope he does, because he has put his time into his sport and he is a magnificent athlete and Ben Johnson is not a particularly nice guy, either, and besides, track and field history would enjoy it.
But track and field will always adore this creature. And who knows? Maybe America is ready to forgive and forget. You know what I figure? I figure the best chance for Carl Lewis to be finally loved by his own country is to streak across that finish line tonight, shatter the world record, fall in tears to the track as the network sticks a microphone in front of his face .
And develop laryngitis.