Carl Lewis

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Medal record
Carl Lewis
Men's athletics
Olympic Games
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 100 m
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 200 m
Gold 1984 Los Angeles 4x100 m
Gold 1984 Los Angeles Long jump
Gold 1988 Seoul 100 m
Gold 1988 Seoul Long jump
Gold 1992 Barcelona 4x100 m
Gold 1992 Barcelona Long jump
Gold 1996 Atlanta Long jump
Silver 1988 Seoul 200 m
World Championships
Gold 1983 Helsinki 100 m
Gold 1983 Helsinki 4x100 m
Gold 1983 Helsinki Long jump
Gold 1987 Rome 100 m
Gold 1987 Rome 4x100 m
Gold 1987 Rome Long jump
Gold 1991 Tokyo 100 m
Gold 1991 Tokyo 4x100 m
Silver 1991 Tokyo Long jump
Bronze 1993 Stuttgart 200 m

Frederick Carlton "Carl" Lewis (born July 1, 1961) is a retired American track and field athlete who won 10 Olympic medals including 9 golds, and 10 World Championships medals, of which 8 were golds, in a career that spanned from 1979 when he first achieved a world ranking to 1996 when he last won an Olympic title and subsequently retired. He currently lives in Los Angeles and is pursuing an acting career.

Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long-jumper who topped the world rankings in the 100 m, 200 m and long jump events frequently from 1981 to the early 1990s, was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and set world records in the 100 m, 4 x 100 m and 4 x 200 m relays. His 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10 years is one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks.

His lifetime accomplishments have led to numerous accolades, including being voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee and being named "Olympian of the Century" by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated. He also helped transform track and field from its nominal amateur status to its current professional status, thus enabling athletes to have more lucrative and longer-lasting careers.

Despite his impressive athletic achievements, the American public didn't easily warm to him owing to the perception that he was aloof and egotistical. His self-congratulatory conduct and lack of humility also made him unpopular with many other track stars.


Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Lewis grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. His parents moved there in 1963 after Lewis’ mother said “she couldn’t take it anymore” after seeing her husband on television, being hosed down by police during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham. Growing up in Willingboro was “like a storybook experience” said Lewis of life in the quiet and racially diverse town.

From an early age, track was a central part of Lewis’ life. His parents William McKinley Lewis Jr. and Evelyn Lawler, both teachers, started the Willingboro Track Club for girls, as there were no track programs for girls in the public schools. They would place Carl with younger sister Carol in the long jump pit to play when they did not have a babysitter. The club soon allowed boys, and that is where Lewis started his track career.

Lewis wasn’t initially a promising athlete, self-described as being the “runt” of the family, his elder brothers and sister showing more initial athletic prowess. Despite this initial lack of promise, Lewis’ parents continued to encourage their son to set goals and try to achieve them. Jesse Owens was an early role model, as Lewis’ father would often tell stories of him and speak highly of the former track star. When Lewis was about nine, he met Owens at a youth track meet, where Owens advised Lewis to “have fun.”

Athletic career

Emergence as a competitive athlete

At age 13, Lewis started to compete in the long jump. While attending Willingboro High School, Lewis grew out of his “runt” stage and emerged as a promising athlete. As a junior, he was one of the top long jumpers in New Jersey. By his senior year, he was emerging as one of the top long jumpers in the world. Numerous colleges were soon actively recruiting him, and he eventually decided to enroll at the University of Houston where Tom Tellez was coach. Tellez would remain Lewis’ coach for his entire career. Days after graduating from high school in 1979, Lewis broke the high school long jump record with a leap of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in).

Lewis immediately let it be known that he intended to make a living off of his athletic abilities, even though track and field was nominally an amateur sport. Upon meeting Tellez for the first time after arriving at the University of Houston in the fall of 1979, Lewis said “I want to be a millionaire and I don’t ever want a real job!” At year’s end, Lewis achieved his first world ranking as tabulated by Track and Field News, an American publication and self-described “Bible of the Sport.” He was 5th in the world in the long jump. (All subsequent ranking references are according to Track and Field News)

Lewis qualified for the American team for the 1980 Olympics in the long jump and as a member of the 4 x 100 m relay team. Though his focus was on the long jump, he was now starting to emerge as a sprint talent. The Olympic boycott meant that Lewis did not compete in Moscow. At year’s end, Lewis was ranked 6th in the world in the long jump and 7th in the 100 m.

Breakthrough in 1981 and 1982

In 1981, Lewis started to emerge as a dominant sprinter and long jumper. From this year until 1992, Lewis would top the 100 m ranking six times (seven if Ben Johnson's 1987 top ranking is ignored), and rank no lower than third. His dominance in the long jump would be even greater, as he’d top the rankings nine times during the same period, and rank second in the other years. He won his first of six National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles for the University of Houston and won his first national titles in the 100 m and long jump. Since it was exceedingly rare for an athlete to compete in both a track and a field event and to dominate both, comparisons started to be made to Jesse Owens, who had famously dominated sprint and long jump events in the 1930s.

At the start of 1981, Lewis’ best legal long jump was his high school record from 1979. On June 20, Lewis improved his personal best by almost half a metre by leaping 8.62 m (28 ft 3 in) at the TAC Championships while still a teenager. Lewis had vaulted himself to being the number two long jumper in history, behind only Bob Beamon, and holder of the low-altitude record.

While marks set at the thinner air of high altitude are eligible for world records, some purists feel that there is some “taint” to the assistance that altitude gives to athletes. Some feel altitude records should be discarded the same way records with an aiding wind over 2 m/s are. The advantage is chiefly in sprinting and jumping events, as the benefits of lower air resistance are offset by the relative lack of oxygen when longer distances are involved. Lewis was determined to set his records at sea level venues to avoid the taint of “assisted” records. In response to a question about him skipping a 1982 long jump competition at altitude, he said, “I want the record and I plan to get it, but not at altitude. I don’t want that ‘(A)’ [for altitude] after the mark.” When he was gaining prominence in the early 1980s, all the extant men’s sprint records and the long jump record had been set at the high altitude of Mexico City.

In the 100 m, Lewis became the fastest sprinter in the world in 1981. His relatively modest best from 1979 (10.67 s) improved to a world-class 10.21 the next year. But 1981 saw him run 10.00 s at the Southwest Conference Championships in Dallas on May 16, a time that was the third-fastest in history and stood as the low-altitude record. For the first time, Lewis was ranked number one in the world, in both the 100 m and the long jump. Additionally, he won the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. His loss to Larry Myricks at the TAC Indoor Championships in February would stand as his last loss in the long jump for more than a decade.

In 1982, Lewis continued his dominance, and for the first time, it seemed someone might challenge Bob Beamon’s world record of 8.90 m in the long jump set at the 1968 Olympics, a mark often described as one of the greatest athletic achievements ever. Before Lewis, 28 ft [8.53 m] had been exceeded on two occasions by two people: Beamon and 1980 Olympic champion Lutz Dombrowski. During 1982, Lewis cleared 8.53 m five times outdoors, twice more indoors, going as far as 8.76 m (28 ft 9 in) at Indianapolis on July 24. He also ran 10.00 s in the 100 m, the world’s fastest time, matching his low-altitude record from 1981. [ibid, p. 20] He achieved his 10.00 s clocking the same weekend he leapt 8.61 m twice, and the day he recorded his new low-altitude record 8.76 m at Indianapolis, he had three fouls with his toe barely over the board, two of which seemed to exceed Beamon’s record, the third which several observers said reached 30 ft (about 9.15 m).

He repeated his number one ranking in the 100 m and long jump, and would add a number six rank in the 200 m. Additionally, he was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News. By the end of 1982, Lewis was recognized as a superstar in the sport but had yet to compete in a major international competition. He would get that chance the next year.

1983 and the inaugural World Championships

For the first time, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, organized a World Championships, an event which would prove to be one of the biggest sporting events of the year worldwide. The championships boasted a record number of participating countries for a sporting event (154), more than even the Olympics which had been plagued by politically motivated boycotts in its two previous celebrations and which would suffer another one in 1984. Lewis’ emergence as a star in track and field couldn’t have been better timed, as this was a huge new venue to showcase his talents to the world. Further, though he missed the experience of competing at the 1980 Olympics owing to the American boycott, he would get an opportunity to gain the experience of a near-equivalent sporting event via the Championships, all the better to learn to handle the pressure of an Olympic Games.

At the World Championships, Lewis’ chief rival in the long jump was predicted to be the man who last beat him: Larry Myricks. But though Myricks had joined Lewis in surpassing 28 feet [8.53 m] the year before, he failed to qualify for the American team, and Lewis won at Helsinki with relative ease. His winning leap of 8.55 m defeated silver medallist Jason Grimes by 26 cm.

Things were much the same in the 100 m. There, Calvin Smith who had earlier that year set a new world record in the 100 m at altitude with a 9.93 s performance, could only watch from behind as Lewis beat him 10.07 s to 10.21 s. Smith would win the 200 m title, an event which Lewis had not entered, but even there he was partly in Lewis’ shadow as Lewis had set an American record in that event earlier that year. He won the 200 m June 19 at the TAC/Mobil Championships in 19.75 s, the second-fastest time in history and the low-altitude record, only .03 s behind Pietro Mennea’s 1979 mark. Finally, Lewis ran the anchor in the 4 x 100 m relay, winning in 37.86 s, a new world record and the first in Lewis’ career.

As with most athletes, for Lewis the ultimate goal at Helsinki was to win gold medals, not to set world records. There is an oft-repeated adage in track and field on this matter, which can be paraphrased: You keep the medals, you borrow the records. There were also practical reasons to focus on medals over records: With the relatively challenging conditions at a World Championships and Olympic games and with far more fans and media attention than at other meets, not to mention multiple qualifying rounds during which a single miscue could mean disqualification, an athlete attempting success, especially in multiple events, would be discouraged from going all-out in one and thus risk failure or injury, unless it was required in order to qualify or win the event. Further, a world record typically occurs when conditions are perfect, which is never a guarantee on any given day. This partly explains why Lewis’ year-best performances in the 100 m and long jump were not at the World Championships, but at other meets. These marks were impressive, as he became the first person to run a sub-10 second 100 m at low-altitude with a 9.97 s clocking at Modesto May 14. His gold at the World Championships and his other fast times earned him the number one ranking in the world that year, despite Calvin Smith’s world record. At the TAC Championships on June 19, he set a new low-altitude record in the long jump, 8.79 m, and earned the world number one ranking in that event, but only a number two ranking in the 200 m despite his low-altitude record 19.75 s set at the same meet. Because Smith had won gold at Helsinki and titles won usually outweigh marks set for the rankers at Track and Field News, he was given the nod. But Lewis got the ultimate honour that year, being named Athlete of the Year again by the magazine.

Lewis had proved himself in Helsinki: Now a bigger event loomed, the Olympic Games, and a bigger goal: four golds to match Jesse Owens' feat from the 1936 Olympics.

1984 Olympics and the quest to equal Jesse Owens

Lewis was one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the world by the start of 1984, but owing to track and field’s relatively low profile in America, Lewis was not nearly as well known there. Though America annually produces the strongest or one of the strongest track and field teams in the world, it is chiefly during the Olympic Games that the general public there pays much attention to its track stars. In 1984, not only was Lewis an established star in the sport, the summer Olympics were being held in America for the first time in over half a century. The 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles would make Lewis a household name in America.

Given Lewis’ stated goal to become rich and famous, and his willingness to seek publicity and speak his mind, he and agent Joe Douglas, founder and manager of the Santa Monica Track Club of which Lewis was a member, openly discussed his wish to match Jesse Owens' feat of winning four gold medals at a single Olympic Games and to “cash in” afterwards with the lucrative endorsement deals which surely would follow. As it turned out, his first goal would prove to be far easier accomplished than his latter goal, at least in America.

Lewis started his quest to match Owens with a convincing win in the 100 m, running 9.99 s to handily defeat his nearest competitor, fellow American Sam Graddy, by .20 s. In his next event, the long jump, Lewis won with relative ease. His third gold medal came in the 200 m, where he again won handily in a time of 19.80 s, a new Olympic record. And finally, he won his fourth gold when the 4 x 100 m relay team he anchored finished in a time of 37.83 s, a new world record eclipsing the record he helped set the year before at the World Championships.

Lewis had achieved what he had set out to do. He had matched Jesse Owens’ legendary feat of winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, and he had done so with relative ease. Though some events at the Olympics had been reduced in quality by the Soviet-led boycott, it was not likely that Lewis would have been challenged by any of the missing athletes in his events. However, Lewis had also expected to win lucrative endorsement deals, but few if any were forthcoming in America. Though no single reason or incident can account for this, an ominous sign for Lewis that he would not be easily embraced by the American public emerged with the controversy surrounding the long jump competition (see the Controversies section below).

At year’s end, Lewis was again awarded the top ranks in the 100 m and the long jump and was additionally ranked number one in the 200 m. And for the third year in a row, he was awarded the Athlete of the Year title by Track and Field News.

Carl Lewis was also drafted in the 10th round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. He never played in the NBA.

Ben Johnson emerges as a challenger

After the Los Angeles Olympics, Lewis continued to dominate track and field, especially in the long jump, an event he would not lose at for seven more years, but others started to challenge his dominance in the 100 m sprint. His low-altitude record had been surpassed by fellow American Mel Lattney with a time of 9.96 s shortly before the 1984 Olympics, but his biggest challenger would prove to be Canadian Ben Johnson, the bronze medalist behind Lewis at the 1984 Olympics. Johnson would beat Lewis once in 1985, but Lewis also lost to others, while winning most of his races. Lewis retained his number one rank that year, Johnson would place second. In 1986, Johnson defeated Lewis convincingly at the Goodwill Games in Moscow, clocking a new low-altitude record of 9.95 s. At year’s end, Johnson was ranked number one, while Lewis slipped to number three having lost more races than he won. He even seemed vulnerable in the long jump, an event he didn’t lose at in 1986, or the year before, though he competed sparingly. Lewis ended up ranked second behind Soviet Robert Emmiyan, who had the longest legal jump of the year at 8.61 m.

1987 World Championships

The 1987 World Championships in Athletics in Rome would be Lewis’ opportunity to regain the momentum he seemed to have lost the previous two years.

The second World Championships would prove to the world that rumours of Lewis’ decline were greatly exaggerated. But they would also prove that Lewis was beatable, even when he was in top form. To focus on his strongest event, the long jump, Lewis skipped the 200 m and made sure to take all his attempts. This was not to answer critics from the 1984 long jump controversy; this was because history’s second 29 ft long-jumper was in the field. Robert Emmiyan had leaped 8.86 m (29 ft 1 in) at altitude in May, just 4 cm short of Bob Beamon’s record. But Emmiyan could only manage an 8.53 m leap that day, and Lewis won with a mark of 8.67 m, clearing 8.60 m four times. In the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis anchored the gold-medal team to time of 37.90 s, the third-fastest of all time.

But the event which was most talked about and which caused the most drama was the 100 m final. Johnson had run under 10.00 s three times that year before Rome, while Lewis had not managed to get under the 10.00 s barrier at all. But Lewis looked strong in the heats of the 100 m, setting a Championship record in the semi-final while running into a wind with a 10.03 s effort. In the final, however, Johnson took control and sped to the finish line in a time which stunned observers: 9.83 s, a new world record. Lewis, second with 9.93 s, had tied the existing world record, but was beaten.

While Johnson basked in the glory of his achievement, Lewis started to explain away his defeat. He first claimed that Johnson had false-started, then he alluded to a stomach virus which had weakened him, and finally, without naming names, said “There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.” He added, “I could run 9.8 or faster in the 100 if I could jump into drugs right away.” This was the start of Lewis’ calling on the sport of track and field to be cleaned up in terms of the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Cynics noted that the problem had been in the sport for many years, and it only become a cause for Lewis once he was actually defeated. In response to the accusations, Johnson replied "When Carl Lewis was winning everything, I never said a word against him. And when the next guy comes along and beats me, I won’t complain about that either".

The 1988 Olympics: turmoil and vindication

Lewis not only lost the most publicized showdown in track and field in 1987, he also lost his father. When William McKinley Lewis Jr. died, Lewis placed the gold medal he won for the 100 m in 1984 in his hand to be buried with him. "Don't worry,” he told his mother. “I'll get another one.” Lewis would repeatedly refer to his father as a motivating factor for the 1988 season. “A lot happened to me last year, especially the death of my father. That caused me to rededicate myself to being the very best I possibly can be this season,” he said, after defeating Johnson in Zürich August 17.

The defeat of Johnson shortly before the Olympics was part of a year-long grudge match between the two athletes. The Johnson camp had angrily defended their star against the drug accusations Lewis had thrown out, but they also were scrambling to get Johnson ready after he suffered a hamstring injury during the indoor season. When Lewis defeated Johnson in their first meeting since Rome’s World Championships, the drama for the Olympics only heightened. Lewis had run 9.93 s, the identical time he ran finishing second to Johnson the previous year. Johnson ran 10.00 s, indicating he was recovering well from his injury, but not answering the question whether he’d be ready for the Olympic final a bit more than a month away.

The 100 m final at the 1988 Olympics was one of the most-hyped sports stories of the year; its dramatic outcome would rank as one of the top sports stories of the century, according to some. The quarterfinal rounds saw Johnson almost not qualifying as he eased up too early, allowing two to pass him. But his time stood as the fastest of the time qualifiers and he advanced to the semi-finals. In the semi-finals the next day, Lewis ran 9.97 s into a wind, and Johnson did likewise with a time of 10.03 s. In the final, Johnson had the fastest start and was soon in the lead. Lewis, not known for his starts, lagged in third by 30 m, but passed Canadian Desai Williams around 60 m. In the end, Lewis was unable to get any closer to Johnson, who had a 2 m lead. Johnson won in 9.79 s, a new world record, Lewis set a new American record with a clocking of 9.92 s. Johnson repeated the old track adage about the primacy of titles over records, “They can break my record, but they can’t take my gold medal away,” but in this case he was wrong. Three days later, he tested positive for steroids, his medal was taken away and Lewis was awarded gold. Additionally, Lewis’ time was recognized as the new Olympic record.

The rest of the Olympics were a mixed bag for Lewis, at least in comparison to his 1984 Olympic triumphs. Robert Emmiyan withdrew from the long jump competition citing an injury, and Lewis’ main challengers were rising American long jump star Mike Powell and long-time rival Larry Myricks. Unlike in 1984, Lewis did not win the competition on his initial leap. After three rounds, he was in first, but by only 7 cm over Powell. But after a controversy about jumping order, Lewis leapt 8.72 m, a low-altitude Olympic best, and none of his competitors could match it. The Americans swept the medals in the event for the first time in 84 years. [ibid, p. 41] In the 200 m, Lewis dipped under his Olympic record from 1984, running 19.79 s, but did so in second place to Joe DeLoach, who claimed the new record and Olympic gold in 19.75 s. [ibid, p. 13] In the final event he was entered in, the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis never even made it to the track as the American team fumbled an exchange in one of the heats and were disqualified. [ibid, p. 32]

Though not matching his results from the 1984 Olympics in terms of gold medals, Lewis nevertheless achieved a career milestone in winning the 100 m gold: His 9.92 s performance would be the first time he set an outdoor world record. "Would be" because despite Johnson's disqualification for steroid use at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, his world record from the 1987 World Championships still stood. After Johnson admitted to long-term steroid use while under oath during a 1989 inquiry, he was stripped of his gold medal and world record from that 1987 performance and Lewis was deemed to be the world record holder for his 1988 Olympic performance. Lewis was also deemed to have tied the then existing world record (9.93 s) for his 1987 World Championship performance, and again at the Zürich meet where he defeated Johnson. From January 1, 1990, Lewis was, for the first time, the world record holder in the 100 m. But Lewis did not hold the mantle of world record holder in the 100 m for very long, as fellow American Leroy Burrell ran 9.90 s on June 14, 1991 to break the mark Lewis set at Seoul. Lewis had lost his ranking as number one sprinter the past two years and while still remaining undefeated in the long jump, it seemed the sprinting world had caught up and passed him by. Lewis, however, responded by putting in the greatest 100 m and long jump performances of his life at that summer’s World Championships.

The 1991 World Championships: Lewis’ greatest performances

Tokyo was the venue for the 1991 World Championships. In the 100 m final, Lewis faced the two men who ranked number one in the world the past two years: Burrell and Jamaican Raymond Stewart. In what would be the deepest 100 m race ever, with six men finishing in under 10.00 s, Lewis not only defeated his opponents, he reclaimed the world record with a clocking of 9.86 s. Though previously a world-record holder in this event, this was the first time he had crossed the line with “WR” beside his name on the giant television screens, and the first time he could savour his achievement at the moment it occurred. He could be seen with tears in his eyes afterwards. "The best race of my life," Lewis said. "The best technique, the fastest. And I did it at 30." He additionally anchored the 4 x100 m relay team to another world record, 37.50 s, the third time that year he had anchored a 4 x 100 m squad to a world record. Though the 100 m record has long since been broken, and other 100 m races rival the 1991 Tokyo final as the greatest ever, the long jump final at the same competition is considered by some to have been one of greatest competitions ever.

Lewis was up against his main rival of the last few years, Mike Powell, the silver medalist in the event from the 1988 Olympics and the top-ranked long jumper of 1990. Lewis had to that point not lost a long jump competition in a decade, winning 65 consecutive meets. Powell had been unable to defeat Lewis, despite sometimes putting in jumps near world-record territory, only to see them ruled fouls. Or, as with other competitors such as Larry Myricks, putting in leaps which Lewis himself had only rarely surpassed, only to see Lewis surpass them on his next or final attempt. Lewis started his competition in dramatic fashion with a jump of 8.68 m, a World Championship record, and a mark bested by only three others beside Lewis all-time. Powell, jumping first, had faltered in the first round, but came up with an 8.54 m to grab second place in the second round. Myricks was also in the competition, but he didn’t challenge the leaders.

Lewis jumped 8.83 m, a wind-aided leap, in the third round, a mark which would have won every long jump competition in history save two, but which ultimately would not be the winning mark today, nor even Lewis’ best of the day. Powell then put together a long foul, estimated to be around 8.80 m. Lewis responded to Powell by putting in yet another huge jump. The wind gauge indicated that it was a wind-aided jump, so it could not be considered a record, but it would still count in the competition. The result: 8.91 m. Lewis had surpassed Bob Beamon’s immortal 8.90 m world record leap with the greatest leap ever under all conditions.

In the fifth round, it was Powell’s turn to respond. This time, his jump was not a foul, and with a wind gauge measurement of 0.3 m/s, well within the legal allowable for a record. The crowd exploded when the distance was revealed: 8.95 m, a new world record, beating the 23-year-old mark set by Bob Beamon.

Lewis still had two jumps left, though he was suddenly no longer chasing Beamon, but Powell. He leaped 8.87 m, which was a new personal best under legal wind conditions—indeed, it was done with the wind in his face—then he took his final jump and leaped 8.84 m. Despite the enormous pressure of having to best a world record, Lewis achieved the third and fifth greatest legal long jumps in history, and the second and third longest at low altitude, behind only Powell’s record leap. Lewis had put in the greatest series of jumps in history, even surpassing the old world record with a wind-aided jump, but lost the competition. So great was the competition that, 15 years later, Powell’s record still stands, and Lewis’ legal jumps rank as 3rd and 5th all-time, their marks ranked one-two-three all-time at low-altitude.

Lewis’ reaction to what was one of the greatest competitions ever in the sport in part explains why he never was truly appreciated by many for his remarkable athletic achievements, as he only grudgingly acknowledged the achievement of Powell. "He just did it," Lewis said of Powell's winning jump. "It was that close, and it was the best of his life, and he may never do it again." While this ended up being true for Powell (at least under legal wind conditions), it was also true for Lewis himself.

As for his efforts at the 1991 World Championships, Lewis said, “This has been the greatest meet that I’ve ever had.” Track and Field News was prepared to go even further than that, suggesting that after these Championships, “[I]t had become hard to argue that he is not the greatest athlete ever to set foot on track or field.”

Lewis credits his outstanding 1991 results in part to the vegan diet he adopted in 1990.

The 1992 Olympics and beyond

After the heights reached in 1991, Lewis started to lose his dominance in both the sprints and the long jump. Though he anchored a world record 1:19.11 in the rarely run 4 x 200 m relay with the Santa Monica Track Club early in 1992, he failed to qualify for the Olympic team in the 100 m or 200 m. In the latter race, he finished fourth at the Olympic trials behind rising star Michael Johnson who set a personal best of 19.79 s. It was the first time the two had ever met on the track. Lewis did, however, qualify for the long jump, finishing second behind Powell, and was eligible for the 4 x 100 m relay team.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Lewis made most of his opportunities, leaping 8.67 m in the first round of the long jump, beating Powell who did a final-round 8.64 m, 3 cm short of victory. In the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis anchored yet another world record, this time in 37.40 s, a time which has since only been matched, not yet beaten.

Lewis competed at the 4th World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993, but finished fourth in the 100 m, and did not compete in the long jump. He did, however, earn his first World Championship medal in the 200 m, a bronze with his 19.99 s performance. That medal would prove to be his final Olympic or World Championship medal in a running event. Injuries kept Lewis largely sidelined for next few years, then he made a comeback for the 1996 season.

Lewis and the 1996 Olympics

Lewis qualified for American Olympic team for the fifth time in the long jump, the only time an American man has achieved such a feat. And though he finished eighth in the 100 m final at the Olympic Trials, the fact that he was on the Olympic team meant that he could be considered for the relay team. [ibid, p. 10] At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, world-record holder Powell and the leading long-jumper in the world, Iván Pedroso, were both hobbled by injuries, and had sub-par performances. Lewis, on the other hand, was in good form. Even if not in the league of some of his past performances, his third-round leap of 8.50 m was good enough to win gold, and by a margin of 21 cm over second-place James Beckford of Jamaica. He thus became one of only three Olympic athletes to win the same individual event four times. Additionally, Lewis’ ninth gold medal tied him with Finnish running great Paavo Nurmi who had more gold medals than any other track and field athlete, save for Ray Ewry who had 10, if the 1906 Intercalated Games are included.

But, again, controversy struck when as Track and Field News put it, “Lewis’ pissy attitude in the whole relay hoo-hah a few days later served only to take the luster off his final gold.”

After Lewis’ unexpected long jump gold, it was noted that he could surpass Nurmi as the track and field athlete with most golds at the Olympics if he was entered on the 4 x 100 m relay team. This was because any member of the American Olympic men’s track team could be used, even if they never ran the event. Lewis said, “If they asked me, I’d run it in a second. But they haven’t asked me to run it.” He further suggested on Larry King Live that viewers phone the United States Olympic Committee to let them know what they thought of the situation. The fact that Lewis had skipped the mandatory relay training camp and demanded to run only the anchor leg added to the debate. The final decision was not to add Lewis to the team. As Olympic team coach Erv Hunt said, “The basis of their [the relay team’s] opinion was ‘We want to run, we worked our butts off and we deserve to be here.’” [ibid, p. 31] In the end, the American relay team finished second to the Canadian team, the first time an American 4 x 100 m men’s relay team had ever been defeated in an Olympic final when they ran a clean race. Since the Canadian team was anchored by Donovan Bailey, who had days earlier set a new world record in the 100 m, and the Canadians ran the fastest time ever recorded in America, there is doubt that the addition of Lewis to the team would have made a difference in the final result. “Amid the American hype, Canada was indeed being overlooked, despite having Worlds silver medalist Bruny Surin to back up the new WR holder Bailey,” said Track and Field News. [ibid., p. 30] But the controversy was unquestionably a distraction for the team, and whether Lewis’ presence would have made a difference is irresolvable.

Lewis retired from the sport in 1997.

In 1999, he was voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee, elected "World Athlete of the Century" by the International Association of Athletics Federations and named "Olympian of the Century" by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated.


1984 Olympic long jump final

Lewis had already won gold in the 100 m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when he ran down the runway in his first attempt in the long jump. He still had qualifying heats and finals in both the 200 m and 4 x 100 m to prepare for and compete in his quest to match Jesse Owens' feat of four golds at a single Olympics. When his first leap was measured, it was 8.54 m. He made one more attempt, but it was a foul. He then decided to skip the four jumps he had remaining in the competition, as he was certain that no one else in the field would surpass his first-round jump. Indeed, the best silver medallist Gary Honey of Australia could manage was 8.24 m, 30 cm behind Lewis. Track aficionados generally agreed that Lewis’ decision was the correct one under the circumstances. Lewis’ goal here was to win four gold medals; records were welcome but secondary. Besides, the conditions that day were slightly cool, meaning a record was unlikely and Lewis risked injury with more superfluous attempts when he had many rounds to compete in elsewhere. But the public had been repeatedly told by the media of Lewis’ quest to surpass Bob Beamon’s legendary long jump record of 8.90 m, and Lewis himself had often stated it was a goal of his to surpass the mark. A television ad with Beamon himself appeared before the final, featuring the record-holder saying, “I hope you make it, kid.” So, when Lewis decided not to make any more attempts to try to break the record, he was roundly booed. When asked about those boos, Lewis said, "I was shocked at first. But after I thought about it, I realized that they were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that's flattering."


Lewis’ self-congratulatory conduct did not impress several other track stars. "He rubs it in too much," said Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400 m hurdles. "A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks." Further, Lewis’ agent Joe Douglas compared him to pop star Michael Jackson, a comparison which did not go over well. Douglas said he was inaccurately quoted, but the impression that Lewis was aloof and egotistical was firmly planted in the public’s perception by the end of the 1984 Olympic games.

Additionally, rumours that Lewis was a homosexual circulated, and though Lewis denied the rumours, it probably hurt his marketability as well. Lewis’ look at the Games, with a flat-top haircut and flamboyant clothing, added fuel to the reports. "It doesn't matter what Carl Lewis' sexuality is," high jumper Dwight Stones said. "Madison Avenue perceives him as homosexual." Coke had offered a lucrative deal to Lewis before the Olympics, an offer Lewis and Douglas turned down, confident he’d be worth more after the Olympics. But Coke rescinded the offer after the Games. Nike had Lewis under contract for several years already, despite questions about how it affected his amateur status, and he was appearing on Nike television ads, in print and on billboards. After the Games and faced with Lewis’ new negative image, Nike dropped him. "If you're a male athlete, I think the American public wants you to look macho," said Don Coleman, a Nike representative. "They started looking for ways to get rid of me," Lewis said. "Everyone there was so scared and so cynical they didn't know what to do." Lewis himself would lay the blame on some inaccurate reporting, especially the “Carl bashing,” as he put it, typified by a Sports Illustrated article before the Olympics.

Some of the resentment towards Lewis stemmed from the ambivalence over the amateur/professional status with which track and field was then struggling. In Europe and Asia, large appearance fees were a given and accepted, and Lewis was enormously popular. And, his endorsement fees there meant he profited handsomely by his athletic achievements despite the lack of endorsements in the United States. In America, by contrast, it was seen to be unseemly to "cash in" on what was supposedly an “amateur” sport, even while many professional athletes did exactly that. It was perhaps not until the appearance of the National Basketball Association stars at the 1992 Olympics that this ambivalence finally ended. Lewis had always been one of the highest-profile athletes in the movement towards professionalism at the Olympics and in formerly “amateur” events. “Amateurism is the strongest form of discrimination in sports," said Lewis. "Because it discriminates against the underprivileged, it discriminates against the poor. If we want sports to go back to the wealthy, let's make it amateur again."

Some athletes who subsequently profited from these once-amateur sports feel they owe a debt to Lewis. “I don't know if the generation of runners today, with huge appearance fees, fully appreciate what the generations before them did to build the sport and the market,” former 100 m record-holder and Olympic gold medallist Donovan Bailey said in 2006. “I ran into Carl Lewis recently in Toronto, and I thanked him.”

Drug accusations

In 2003, Dr. Wade Exum, the United States Olympic Committee's director of drug control administration from 1991 to 2000, gave copies of documents to Sports Illustrated which revealed that some 100 American athletes who failed drug tests and should have been prevented from competing in the Olympics were nevertheless cleared to compete. Among those athletes was Carl Lewis.

It was revealed that Lewis tested positive three times before the 1988 Olympics for pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine, banned stimulants also found in cold medication, and had been banned from the Seoul Olympics and from competition for six months. The USOC accepted his claim of inadvertent use and overturned the decision. Fellow Santa Monica Track Club teammates Joe DeLoach and Floyd Heard were also found to have the same banned stimulants in their systems, and were cleared to compete for the same reason.

The positive results occurred at the Olympic Trials in July 1988 where athletes were required to declare on the drug-testing forms "over-the-counter medication, prescription drugs and any other substances you have taken by mouth, injection or by suppository."

"Carl did nothing wrong. There was never intent. He was never told, you violated the rules," said Martin D. Singer, Lewis' lawyer, who also said that Lewis had inadvertently taken the banned stimulants in an over-the-counter herbal remedy. Some experts claim that the banned stimulants can be used as masking agents for more serious drugs, such as anabolic steroids. "The only thing I can say is I think it's unfortunate what Wade Exum is trying to do," said Lewis. "I don't know what people are trying to make out of nothing because everyone was treated the same, so what are we talking about? I don't get it."

Personal bests

  • 100 m: 9.86 s (1991)
  • 200 m: 19.75 s (1983)
  • Long jump: 8.87 m (1991), w 8.91 m (1991)
  • 4x100 m relay: 37.40 s (United States - Marsh Michael, Burrell Leroy, Mitchell Dennis, Lewis Carl - 1992; current world record)
  • 4x200 m relay: 1:18.68 (Santa Monica Track Club - Marsh Michael, Burrell Leroy, Heard Floyd, Lewis Carl - 1994; current world record)


  • Lewis’ mother, the former Evelyn Lawler, was an Olympian who competed at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki in the 80 m hurdles.
  • Carl's sister Carol Lewis was also an Olympian, finishing 9th in the long jump at the 1984 Olympics, and earning a bronze medal in the same event at the 1983 World Championships. She additionally set two American records in the long jump in 1985.
  • The Chicago Bulls drafted Carl Lewis in the 1984 NBA Draft as the 208th overall pick, even though he hadn't played high school or college basketball. Lewis never played in the NBA. On the NBA's website he's included in a section named "draft oddities" explaining this was an honorary draft capitalizing on his popularity after the Los Angeles Olympics. There's a poll on the same page where Lewis is second to Lucy Harris, the only woman to be drafted by the NBA, as the most unique pick in the history of the NBA Draft.
  • Though he did not play football in college, Carl Lewis was drafted as a wide receiver in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys but he did not play.
  • Carl Lewis' gold in the 1984 Olympics 100 m was buried with his father. Lewis placed the medal in his father's hands at the funeral and told his mother, "Don't worry. I'll get another one"
  • Singing the Star-Spangled Banner on January 21, 1993, Lewis gave a notoriously bad rendition of the song when his voice began to screech at the line "and the rockets red glare." After promising "I'll make up for it," he never did. The explanation given for the performance was being hoarse after singing at the White House inauguration ceremony for President Clinton the day before. His performance at the game became even more famous after ESPN SportsCenter's Charlie Steiner was unable to contain himself from laughing after a replay of the "highlight," which Steiner said must have been written by " Francis Scott Off-Key". One can also hear this 'Lewis soundbite' repeatedly made fun of on Jim Rome's daily radio program as well as occasional plays on the Howard Stern Show.
  • Lewis is referenced in a song about boring television programmes by The Fall, entitled A Lot of Wind. The lyrics run 'then they have Carl Lewis on / he's got a ponytail and he's a vegan / he talks a lot of wind / he talks a lot about wind'.

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