Carl Lewis was never loved by his countrymen, but his accomplishments speak for themselves, writes William Johnson.
The king of longevity
When a magazine with the reputation of Sports Illustrated declares you to be the "Olympian of the 20th Century" and the International Olympic Committee describe you as "Sportsman of the Century" those accolades become as big an endorsement of greatness as nine Olympic gold medals amassed over two decades of prominence, if not dominance, in the world of track and field. These are the credentials Carl Lewis brings to the voting chamber in any debate about the leading sporting personalities of all time. Initially focused on emulating his great black role model Jesse Owens, who won four Olympic golds at the 1936 Olympic Games, Lewis went far beyond that objective.
Not only did the American take the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump titles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, he went on to retain two of those titles in Seoul four years later, win another two in Barcelona in 1992 and capture a fourth successive long jump title in Atlanta, 12 years after he had earned his first. In terms of longevity, Lewis had few Olympic equals. His countryman Al Oerter, who won four golds in a row in the less fashionable event of discus, was the only athlete who came close to matching him.
Lewis will probably be remembered as much for his part in a race he did not win as he is for the many in which he romped triumphantly through the finishing tape. That was the 100 metres final in Seoul in 1988 in which he came up against his most bitter rival, the Canadian Ben Johnson. The year before, Lewis had lost his father William McKinley, to whom he was enormously devoted. Shortly before the funeral he placed the 100m gold medal from Los Angeles into the coffin for it to be buried.
Carl, the third of a family of four children, turned to his grieving mother Evelyn Lawler, who had competed in the 80 metres hurdles at the 1952 Olympics and remarked: "Don't worry I will get another one." He duly did but only after one of the biggest sporting controversies ever - the disqualification of Johnson for drug abuse at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The ecstatic words of Johnson after he had swept over the line in a world record time of 9.79 seconds came back to haunt the Canadian. "They can break my record, but they can't take my gold medal away," he said.
Three days later that medal was stripped from him and placed round the neck of Lewis, who had finished second in a US record time of 9.92secs. Lewis thus became the only man in history to make a successful defence of his sport's blue riband event. Ironically, 15 years later, it was disclosed that Lewis himself had tested positive for the use of banned stimulants during his preparations for those Games in South Korea. It was passed off by the American authorites as "inadvertent use" in a manner similar to the way rumours of homosexuality were also kept at bay.
Those slurs on his character had an adverse effect on Lewis's desire to cash in on his Olympic achievements. The endorsements he expected to flood in were reduced to a trickle at a time when professionalism in amateur sport was a delicate issue. To this day, Lewis feels his fellow Americans did not give him due recognition, although he was proud to learn that the aspiring Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton was named after him.
A few days after the Seoul controversy involving Johnson had rocked the Olympic movement, Lewis went on to retain his long jump title in the middle of a remarkable sequence of 65 successive tournament victories which spanned 10 years in that specialised field event. While Lewis forged his tremendous reputation as a global superstar on the strength of his Olympic staying power, he considers his finest performance ever to have been in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, when at the age of 30 he came out on top in what was considered the most star-studded 100 metres line-up of all time.
Six of the eight starters that day broke the ten-second barrier making a world record time inevitable. It was reclaimed by an overjoyed Lewis who gasped afterwards: "The best race of my life. My best in terms of technique and the fastest of all time." Lewis has been busier than ever since retiring in 1997. He has written two books and taken an active role in US politics (both of his parents were civil rights activists).
His life turned full circle when he relocated to Los Angeles, the stage for his finest hour as an athlete, to pursue his ambitions to become a famous actor. Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Lewis is the all-time best, text G15 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday July 31.