FOUR YEARS HAVE GONE BY SINCE Carl Lewis got gold but did not get
greened at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. As Lewis, now 27, prepares
for what he says will be his last Olympic hurrah, in Seoul, prominent
Lewisologists all over the country sit at their breakfast tables,
gazing at cereal boxes promising them their recommended daily
requirements of niacin, riboflavin and stuff like that and musing
about why Fast Carl isn't smiling back at them.
The absence of Lewis from the national endorsement scene is eerie
and mysterious and almost sci-fi. Guy sets out to be an American hero
like his idol, Jesse Owens. Goes to the first summer Olympics held in
this country in 52 years, equals Owens's 1936 Berlin haul of four
Olympic track and field gold medals in exactly the same events -- the
100 and 200 meters, the long jump and the 4 X 100-meter relay -- and
looks great doing it. Waves the American flag after his victories. So
far, so good.
Then he gets creamed by gymnastics elf Mary Lou Retton in the
post-Olympic sweepstakes for the Wheaties box appearance, the
McDonald's spokesperson role and the Vidal Sassoon hair care
endorsement. And he promptly disappears.
, Lewis reportedly made more than $700,000 in 1984, very
quietly. Even now he reportedly makes $35,000 per meet in Europe,
also very quietly. (Not so quiet were the reports that he and Ben
Johnson were each paid $250,000 for their 100-meter showdown in
Zurich last month.) He was and still is idolized in Europe and Japan,
where he has endorsed Fuji Xerox copiers, Suntory soft drinks, Sagawa
Express courier service, Mizuno athletic shoes, Ecco nonathletic
shoes and Arlag milk. A couple of years back he had a hit record in
Scandinavia, something about the brotherhood of man. And during these
past four years, he has kept on running, kept on jumping, kept on
pushing toward his goal of unprecedented repeat victories in the '88
But he failed to click in the U.S.A. His long-term Nike shoe
contract ended in an out-of-court settlement, which neither side will
talk about but which reportedly arose from Nike's contention that
Lewis had been spotted wearing other brands of shoes and attire at
track meets. A hoped-for big-money deal with Coca-Cola never
materialized. His much-publicized acting lessons won him a bit part
in a bomb called Dirty Laundry that made it to home video stores
almost as fast as Lewis runs the 100.
Despite the fact that he is handsome, articulate and athletically
magnificent, Lewis has no domestic endorsement deals. Commercially,
he remains one of America's best-kept secrets. What gives? The
country's leading Carl Watchers offer several theories:
-- The Michael Jackson Thing: Before the start of the '84 Games,
Lewis's extroverted manager, Joe Douglas, was widely quoted as
telling a Los Angeles press conference that Carl Lewis would soon be
as big as or bigger than Michael Jackson -- depending on which paper
you read the next day. Douglas was also widely quoted as talking
about the major endorsement deals that he expected Lewis to sign
shortly after winning his four gold medals.
''Lewis could've won 10 gold medals after that, and nobody
would've touched him,'' says Edwin T. Whittemore, the Boston attorney
who has guided Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner at the L.A. Games of the
first-ever women's Olympic marathon, into a long-term Nike contract
and endorsement deals with Dole pineapples, Apple Computer, the Maine
Savings Bank, Poland Spring water and Mita copiers. ''The Lewis camp
was saying that an Olympic gold medal is worth a lot of dollars. That
hurt him badly. When that was written, anybody dealing with these
athletes knew that Lewis was in for a heap of trouble. His
endorsement value plunged.
''If you're a corporate sponsor, you're interested in the Olympic
theme, which is: If you work hard, you're going to have some success.
As soon as an Olympic athlete starts talking about money, he kills
that genuineness, that authenticity, that clean image. So if you're a
corporate sponsor and you read that after you've offered him a
six-figure contract, wouldn't you feel you'd been had?''
In counseling Olympic athletes, Whittemore says, his main theme
is: ''Let's concentrate on the business at hand. The business at hand
is not money. The business at hand is what you have spent a lifetime
preparing yourself for. Don't blow it by thinking about money.''
No such counseling was necessary for Samuelson, who, Whittemore
says, turned down six-figure, multiple-year offers from a soft drink
company and a fast- food chain because she didn't use the products.
''Anybody who knows Joan knows that money is probably the last thing
that enters her mind,'' he says. ''That's genuine. That's what
companies love about her.''
On a sunny California afternoon, Douglas, who has coached the
Santa Monica Track Club since '72 and has managed Lewis since '80,
addresses the Michael Jackson Thing head-on.
''Let's get one thing straight,'' Douglas says sadly. ''Carl Lewis
never mentioned Michael Jackson. Joe Douglas did. I made an error. I
would never use a name like that again.''
He did use the name, he says, but not in the way he was quoted.
''I never said that Carl Lewis would be as big as Michael Jackson. I
know there must be a lot of people who have what I actually said on
tape. But so far, no one has come forward.
''The statement that I made, which I regret making, was that I
felt at the time -- and I still feel, although I would say it a
different way now -- that if you have a person like a Michael Jackson
or a Lee Iacocca or a Michael Jordan, a person who can do a
commercial where they can influence the public to such a large
extent, then they should demand top dollar because they are worth top
dollar. And I felt Carl Lewis was tops in his field, just like those
people were tops in theirs. So I felt we should try to get those top
Maybe, he says, he was later asked whether he thought Lewis was
going to be as popular as Michael Jackson. Maybe he said he certainly
hoped so. Maybe he was asked if he wanted Lewis to be as popular as
Michael Jackson and maybe he said yes. ''I felt that Carl Lewis had
transcended the sport and was worth those top dollars commercially,''
Douglas says. ''I never said that Carl Lewis was the next Michael
Jackson or the Michael Jackson of track and field or that he would
make the kind of money that Michael Jackson makes or that he was as
big as Michael Jackson. I was misunderstood. Maybe they wanted to
misunderstand me because it would make good copy.''
Four years later, he says, the Michael Jackson Thing still haunts
him. And still haunts Lewis. ''When I think of everything that I have
ever said or done, that has haunted us more than anything else,''
says Douglas. ''And that was misquoted.''
Lewis, taking a breather in Douglas's office between a network
television interview and a flight to the Bahamas, says that the MJ
Thing happened because the media itself is fixated on money and fame
rather than on athletic achievement.
''The media blows the money thing way out of proportion,'' he says
evenly, without apparent rancor. ''The only thing you hear from
reporters after the Olympics is, 'Did you cash in?' Over and over
again, that one phrase: cash in, cash in, cash in. I mean, people go
to the Olympics to compete, not to cash in. You don't run your race
and then immediately start thinking, 'How can I cash in?' That's
Take Bonnie Blair, Lewis says. In one of the '88 Winter Olympics'
truly thrilling moments, Blair beat world-record holder Christa
Rothenburger of East Germany for the 500-meter speed skating gold,
setting a new world record in the process.
''Bonnie Blair was incredible,'' Lewis says excitedly. ''Yet
immediately afterward, you didn't hear about how incredible she was.
All you heard were questions about how she should be marketed and
whether she was lacking some of the things that would make her
marketable and da-da, da-da, da-dum. I thought, My gosh, what's going
on here? Whoa! Time out! Didn't the girl just struggle and overcome
and win? Why isn't everybody talking about that? Why is it always
cash in, cash in?''
-- The Homosexuality Rumor Thing: Rumors concerning Lewis's sexual
preferences have appeared in gossip columns for years. An '84
pre-Olympics feature story in SI chronicled Lewis's meticulous taste
in fashion, TV makeup, crystal and china, then quoted Lewis
vehemently denying that he is gay.
To make matters worse, Daley Thompson, the British national hero
who won his second Olympic decathlon gold medal at the L.A. Games and
who will try for an incredible third one in Seoul, showed up for
his '84 victory press conference wearing a T-shirt that read: IS THE
WORLD'S SECOND GREATEST ATHLETE GAY?
''The second athlete could be anybody,'' he dryly explained to the
inquisitive press. ''Carl Lewis, anybody. . . . But you have to
realize that in Britain, gay means happy.'' Thompson's T-shirt became
part of the Homosexuality Rumor Thing surrounding Lewis.
''Obviously, his sexuality is his private business,'' says New
York sports agent Arthur Kaminsky, who represents Eric Heiden, winner
of five individual speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid
Winter Olympics, and gymnastics supercoach Bela Karolyi, who hugged
and hollered Mary Lou Retton to her stunning gold medal in the
all-around event in L.A. ''But homosexuality does concern Madison
Avenue a great deal. For the issue to be raised is as bad as if it
were true. Look at Billie Jean King, a wonderful athlete, a great
champion. But then the stories about her sexuality surfaced. Have you
seen a lot of Billie Jean King ads since then?''
Throughout the whole Homosexuality Rumor Thing, Lewis has
refrained from counterattacking the sources of the gossip. ''I
haven't heard one negative thing from fans or from people on the
street,'' he says. ''It has all been in the press. Ninety percent of
it has been rumors started by other athletes who run to the press and
tell them something negative. The press thinks the public wants a
negative story, so they print it. It is sour grapes on the athletes'
part. It is done to hurt me. But it doesn't hurt because, to me,
competition is about concentrating on your event. It isn't about
playing mind games on other athletes.
''During that whole thing, I thought to myself, You know who you
really are. Just continue to be yourself and wait and see. The only
thing I could do is stay close to my family and my friends and try to
It is ironic, of course, that Michael Jackson signs megadeals to
push Pepsi despite persistent gossip about his sexual ambiguity.
Which only serves to emphasize that in the corporate mind there is a
world of difference between going for the gold and going for the
-- The Refusal to Jump Thing: Lewis nailed down his 1984 long jump
gold medal on his first attempt (28 ft. 1/4 in.), fouled on his
second attempt, then chose to pass on his last four chances. He had
run two 200-meter qualifying heats earlier that day. Now, in the
early evening, he was thinking about / possible injury and about
conserving his strength for the 200 semi and final two days later, as
well as the 4 X 100 relay two days after that. But the L.A. Coliseum
crowd expected him to go after the world record of 29 ft. 2 1/2 in.
set by Bob Beamon at the high-altitude 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
When Lewis didn't go for the record, he got booed.
''If you want to be a legend, you don't play it safe,'' says
marathon man Frank Shorter, who won gold at the '72 Munich Games and
silver in Montreal in '76. ''There's no such thing as a cautious
legend. You go for the world record.''
''He could not have achieved it,'' Douglas says flatly. ''The wind
was swirling. It was getting colder. The warmer you are, the farther
you jump. A lot of coaches know this. Force is mass times
acceleration, and this causes stress. There was the risk of injury.
And he still had two more events. He made the wise choice. His coach,
Tom Tellez, told him that. I felt that. He had no chance for a world
record. No chance at all.
''We don't have sportswriters who are sophisticated concerning
track and field. So the public was not informed that Carl made the
only sensible decision. If he had tried for a world record and
injured himself, what would people have said? They would have said,
'Don't you care about your team?' He made the wise decision.''
Brad Hunt, the Advantage International agent who once actively
courted Lewis, lost out to Douglas and now represents Olympians Mary
Decker Slaney, Butch Reynolds and Sydney Maree, agrees with Douglas
but faults him for not spreading the word.
''The irony is that if someone had been clever enough to present
it properly -- how Lewis was doing it for the country, for the team
-- they could have put a white hat on the guy,'' Hunt says. ''He had
already sewn up the long jump gold. The only thing he had to gain was
the personal glory of a long jump world record. You could have
presented him as a hero for saying, 'Forget it. World records can
wait. I want to win a gold medal in the relay. I'm sacrificing a
possible world record for the team.' Lewis's people overlooked
-- The Aloofness Thing: Lewis wasn't bubbly like Mary Lou Retton.
He didn't fall to his knees and thank God and break into
uncontrollable sobs and blurt out, ''I'm one happy dude,'' as super
heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler Jeff Blatnick (who was battling
Hodgkin's disease) did after winning his gold medal. He did not do
100-meter gold medalist Evelyn Ashford's graceful, almost balletic
dance of joy. He did not do Daley Thompson's spontaneous,
porpoiselike celebratory back flip. He projected stoicism. His
grabbing of the American flag after his first gold in the 100 was so
suspect that the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter into the stands to
find out if the whole thing had been staged. The Times concluded that
Maybe because of this perceived stoicism, he never seemed to be
challenged or pushed. He never faced a critical do-or-die moment --
as Thompson did on his final discus throw -- about which he could
say, as Thompson later did to documentary filmmaker Bud Greenspan,
''This was the moment to go and look over the goddam cliff and face
what was down there. That was the biggest moment for me ever. That
was my moment.''
Lewis actually experienced roughly two seconds of that kind of
catharsis in the last 20 meters of his 100-meter final, when he
caught, then passed Sam Graddy and suddenly realized the race was
his. In his extraordinary 16 Days of Glory, Greenspan captures in
slow motion the grim Lewis mug bursting into pure, spontaneous
relief. The rush of raw emotion on that two seconds of film would
sell just about anything. Unfortunately, it was over in the blink of
an eye. Lewis grabbed the flag from the stands, and the L.A. Times
sent in its spontaneity reporter to do a reality check.
None of this was good news, endorsementwise. Nor was the fact that
because his access to the press was severely limited and his
interviews were devoid of colorful quotes, Lewis was repeatedly
described by the press as aloof.
''Many products sell an image of lightness and health and
beauty,'' explains Jody Weiss, an agent at International Management
Group, which represents such world-class runners as Zola Budd, Rob de
Castella, Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers. ''Warmth and
approachability count for a great deal. Carl doesn't project joy.''
Joy, schmoy, says Douglas. The Carl Lewis he knows is a terrific
guy. He wishes the public would get to know that guy.
''In 1984, I remember reading over and over again that Carl was
aloof,'' Douglas says. ''You should call Childrens Hospital of Los
Angeles, where he and Kirk Baptiste spent half the day before the
Olympics began. One young man wanted to see Carl before he had his
second eye taken out. Another one wanted to see him before he had a
bone marrow transplant. All of these kids poured their hearts out to
Carl. He told one of them, 'When I finish the race and you see me
wave, I'm waving at you.' And then you read all this crap in the
papers about Carl being aloof. That's utterly untrue.
''But I guess his charity work is not interesting. What's
interesting to some members of the press are the skeletons that don't
exist in his closet. They're just shadows. Shadows on the wall.''
-- The Jesse Owens Thing: Maybe it wasn't the Michael Jackson
Thing or the Homosexuality Rumor Thing or the Refusal to Jump Thing
or the Aloofness Thing after all. Maybe it was the Jesse Owens Thing.
Maybe if you set out to be the next Jesse Owens, you don't dress
so cute. Maybe you stick to gray sweats and you lay off the skintight
pastel warmup ensembles and the shiny silver jackets with your name
emblazoned across the back. If you're going to be the next Jesse
Owens, maybe you don't dress like Elvis ready to play a gig on the
starship Enterprise. Maybe your manager tells you this. Maybe you
just know it yourself.
Maybe you try to understand why Jesse Owens is an Olympic legend,
not just some guy who won four gold medals a long time ago. Maybe you
check out the old newsreels and see a black man whipping Hitler's
''superior Aryan race'' while Hitler himself looks on. Maybe you see
that guy gradually winning over a gigantic stadium filled with Nazi
supporters until they are rhythmically chanting, ''Jes-se Ow-ens,
Maybe you see the most startling thing of all: blond, blue-eyed
German long jumper Luz Long striking up a friendship with Owens,
settling him down during the qualifying jumps, then running over to
put his arm around the victorious Owens's shoulders and walking down
the runway with him directly in front of Hitler's reviewing stand.
Maybe, then, you understand that becoming the next Jesse Owens is
not a matter of running fast and jumping long and hoping to adorn the
next Wheaties box. ''Here was a guy who was going to be standing on
the same podium as the ultimate Olympian, Jesse Owens,'' Brad Hunt
says. ''He can do what Jesse Owens did athletically, but the things
that he and his manager are talking about are million-dollar deals
and his crystal collection and high fashion and Michael Jackson.
''Track and field needs more heroes. How many track and field
athletes do people recognize? Very, very few. The sport would have
benefited from Carl Lewis being a hero. And the sport suffered a bit
because that did not happen.''
Lewis has a drastically different perspective on the Jesse Owens
Thing. Owens, he says, was a great human being and a great athlete
who made an important contribution to world awareness at the 1936
Olympic Games. ''But after Jesse Owens was admired, he was put right
up on the shelf and forgotten for many years,'' Lewis says. ''Then I
came along and said I was going to compete in his events and the
media took Jesse off the shelf and suddenly everyone was talking
about Jesse Owens again. I rekindled the name of Jesse Owens. After
so many years on the shelf, there was Jesse Owens on the covers of
everything. I met his family. We got along fine. Everything was going
''Then I won the gold medals and, all of a sudden, I was less than
Jesse Owens. I don't know how that all changed, but it did. The press
was writing, 'He could not be as great as Jesse Owens because he
makes money and Jesse Owens didn't.' That didn't make sense. It was
all so irrelevant. Money has nothing to do with athletic
achievement. Are all of today's football and baseball stars not as
great as players in the '30s and '40s because they make more money?
The parallels were not correct. People got confused.''
Will the confusion finally end in Seoul?
Yes, says Kaminsky, because Lewis is no longer the overwhelming
favorite. Despite his victory over Johnson in Zurich, Lewis may
actually be the underdog in the 100 meters; he also finished second
in the 200 and was pressed by Larry Myricks in the long jump at the
U.S. Olympic Trials. If Lewis does well in Seoul, he's got a shot at
redemption. Maybe even a shot at shaking the Aloofness Thing.
And if this comes to pass, can the much maligned Douglas take
Lewis from Olympic gold to American green?
Douglas is no fool. He saw what didn't work in '84. He is no
longer talking rock stars and big bucks before the Games begin. ''We
don't start talking about money, because once we do, it just blows up
in our faces,'' he says quietly.
''In 1984, some television guy took a few sentences from my
interview and a few from Carl's and then took a lot of stuff from IMG
and other would-be quarterbacks who don't know what really happened,
and we ended up looking like stupid asses. Every time money's brought
up, it just opens the door to humongous criticism. So we're not
talking about money anymore.''
Cautiously, he adds, ''I've heard Mary Lou's numbers. I've heard
everybody's numbers. I will imply that Carl was successful
financially, that he came out of the last Olympics with some of the
most lucrative contracts. But did we get everything we could? No. I
was unsuccessful in getting everything we could because of the
The negative publicity, Douglas says, did not weaken the
Lewis-Douglas relationship, which has been strong since Lewis's
coach, Tom Tellez, first brought them together. ''I think we trusted
each other from day one,'' Douglas says. ''We have been through tough
times. There are lots of leeches out there, lots of managers and
so-called sports-marketing people trying to get their claws into
Carl. Obviously, if there wasn't mutual trust, we wouldn't still be
Lewis agrees wholeheartedly. ''Other agents will lash out at me
and Joe in public, then approach me in private and try to snatch me
away from Joe,'' he says, talking rapidly and with considerable
intensity. ''Or they will approach us both in private and say, 'Can
we do this or that together?' And after we turn them down, they will
go to the press and say negative things about us. That's the part
that doesn't come out publicly.''
It would be great, he says, to get everyone together in a room
someday -- himself, Douglas and all the agents who have taken
potshots at the two of them -- and talk openly about hidden motives
for the bad-mouthing. ''That,'' he says, ''would be a very different
story than what has been written in the past.''
Just call 1984 Joe Douglas's fault, Douglas says, and let's get on
with it. Don't blame Carl Lewis. ''Someday, they're going to
recognize him as Mr. 1984 Olympics,'' Douglas says. ''He performed
for the U.S.A. He's really red, white and blue all the way. I want to
read the history books 10, 20 years from now. I think they'll reflect
Along with a happier chapter on Seoul? ''In athletics, you always
have the chance to come back,'' Douglas says. ''I don't have a
crystal ball, but I'm hoping for that chance.''