The imperative of Carl Lewis's chosen race, the 100-meter dash, is simply the imperative of his life. A tall, long-levered man, Lewis must always take a few steps to get those knees up, those arms driving, those hands slicing. He must always reach full speed behind faster starters. And so he must always know that two things will happen over the last 30 meters: His opposition will strain and tighten. And he will not.
This is not a situation for a pinched, panicky soul. This takes obdurate faith in a stillness of mind that allows every muscle except those that throw him forward to stay as loose as lubrication. This takes the absolute dismissal of the grunting sprinters to either side. No issues of manhood are being settled in Lewis's lane. The more purely he runs his race, the more solitary he becomes. The more solitary he becomes, the longer he will last, while others press and flail and fall behind. Only at the finish, having lasted, is he revealed.
Lewis is the most enduring champion in track and field history, not only in the sprint but also in the long jump. He has won eight Olympic gold medals in three Summer Games: two 100s, a 200, two 4 X 100 relays and three long jumps. He has won eight gold medals in world championships. Six times over nine years, Lewis anchored U.S. 4 X 100-meter teams to world records.
He made his first Olympic team at 18, in 1980, and was kept from competing in Moscow by the U.S. boycott. Two summers from now, at 34, he will most likely make the 1996 U.S. team, since he is jumping well after back rehab. In Atlanta, world-record holder Mike Powell notwithstanding, Lewis will have a chance to become a four-time champion in that most jarringly destructive event, the long jump.
Like the 100, the jump demands a man who attends to his own rhythms. When Lewis began to master his technique in 1981, Bob Beamon's world record of 29'2½", set in 1968 at Mexico City's 7,525-foot altitude, was thought unearthly, unapproachable. Beamon himself never again came within a foot and three inches of it. Lewis made Beamon seem a one-jump pony. He went undefeated for a decade, more than 65 straight long-jump competitions. Fifty times he surpassed 28 feet, reaching a best of 29'1¼". He has often refused to jump at altitude, wanting no asterisk to distort his legacy. When Powell at last broke Beamon's mark by two inches in 1991, he was pressed to do it by Lewis, who had just jumped a wind-assisted 29'2¾".
Since Lewis is so serenely unthreatened by competitors, he is a fine teammate. He has drawn to his Santa Monica Track Club such sprinters as Leroy Burrell (who has twice relieved him of the 100-meter world record) and Olympic 200-meter champions Joe DeLoach and Mike Marsh. This allowed Santa Monica not only to break three relay records but also to present such a unified front in negotiations with meet promoters as to shift the balance of power in newly professional track and field.
Perhaps only a man of Lewis's self-possession could have twice absorbed stunning defeats by Ben Johnson, in the 1987 world championships and the 1988 Olympic 100. Perhaps only such a man could have felt in his every bone that Johnson was stoked on steroids yet could have kept silent because he had no proof. And when Johnson's drug test supplied the proof, Lewis refrained from expressing anything other than regretful concern for his disgraced rival.
In his response to every loss and to the virus that prevented him from defending his 100-meter title at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, Lewis has been the soul of grace. Yet it is possible to stand in awe of his unassailable calm and of the beauty and number and drama of his performances and still not feel we quite know the man. A few years ago, discussing the problems of track and field in the U.S., former mile record-holder John Walker of New Zealand said, "Your greatest athlete is a guy nobody can relate to." Lewis's liberating cool liberates him, not necessarily us. We might understand him best as forged by the 100, holding on to his solitude until the pack falls away.
If so, then Lewis's most instructive success, in this age of deranging or strength-sapping public attentions, may be that he goes on exactly as he always has, on his own terms, uncatchable.
ROBERT McELROY/WOODFIN CAMP & ASSOCIATES, 1988