It wasn't supposed to happen. It couldn't have happened. But the
man who made the U.S. Olympic team by a mere inch, the man who
made it to the finals only by grabbing onto the last handrail on
the last caboose, the oldest man in the field, won the gold with
ancient legs, gray hair and a heart that stays forever young.
Carl Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world on
Monday night at a rocking Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to win the
gold medal in the long jump, becoming the only track and field
athlete besides discus thrower Al Oerter to win four gold medals
in a single event. It was his fourth and last Olympics, his
ninth gold, his 10th medal and quite possibly his most
impossible moment in an impossibly brilliant career.
And it all began so ordinarily. Lewis sat in third place behind
Emmanuel Bangue of France and Mike Powell. Lewis had looked very
mortal in his first two jumps, but something happened to him on
his third, something you could see in his eyes. He veered right
on his approach, but thumped the board and took off like he
meant it. Lord, he stayed up forever. Looking down at it from
the heavens, it must have been some sight, Lewis hanging up
there like some David Copperfield trick, bathed in camera
flashes, tens of thousands of them, so that Olympic Stadium
looked like a bowl of stars, and the brightest was Lewis.
And now gravity remembered and he started to descend, stretching
all those old bones and muscles and memories toward history. And
as he came down, he actually looked down and to the right, to
the huge meter markers set there for the crowd, to see how far
he might go. And when he hit, he did not fall back, but sprang
forward and then out of his favorite sandbox in all the world.
When he saw his heel marks, saw how far he had gone, he
collapsed to his knees and fell flat forward, as though he had
taken a javelin in the back. When the scoreboard finally came up
seconds later and read 27'10 3/4"--his best jump at sea level in
four years, since the Barcelona Olympics--Lewis looked stunned,
and as he clutched his graying head, the crow's feet around his
eyes stretched seamless, and those old legs bounced him around
like a schoolboy.
The favorite and world-record holder, Powell, lurked in fourth
place with two tries left. But on his fifth jump Powell fouled
and, worse, strained his groin. Atlanta was his last chance to
beat Lewis in an Olympics--he never had--and Powell could feel it
slipping away. He had spent a lifetime sitting on track benches,
waiting for Lewis to drop more hurt on him. He had lost to Lewis
in Europe and Asia, lost to him from ahead and behind; he had
lost to him for eight straight years at one point, and now it
was happening again. When Powell tried to jog, to try a sixth
jump, the pain was even worse, and he sat back down, weeping.
Yet he tried again, against all sense. As Powell sprinted down
the runway, he grimaced, and as he leaped and rose, it seemed as
if he tripped in midair, and he landed face first and writhed
forward in pain. He lay there for minutes until finally rising,
his dark body and face covered in sand and tears and regret.
"It's over," Powell said later in the dark reaches of the
stadium, as Lewis took still another victory lap at his expense.
"I can't believe it. I didn't win. I didn't get a chance to
Lewis needed to witness only two more jumps to wrap up his
preposterous achievement. The first was made by Bangue. But
Bangue was a dud. And then came the other American, Jumping Joe
Greene, who smiled at the situation, got the crowd clapping and
Lewis first hugged Greene, who won the bronze (James Beckford of
Jamaica was second), and then took his lap, holding not one
American flag but two. He hugged Jesse Jackson on the way, and
his sister, Carol, and then passed a huge banner that read,
THANK YOU, CARL LEWIS.
You try to give the man a gold watch, and he steals your gold
medal instead. You ask him to pass the torch, and he sets your
Olympics on fire instead. "You've just seen a great performer at
the end of his career," said Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez. "People
thought he couldn't do it, but he did. He's the greatest athlete
I've ever seen."
What's funny is that all last week there was a guy bopping
around Atlanta saying he was Carl Lewis, but he sure didn't seem
like Carl Lewis. The real Carl Lewis doesn't have gray hair
popping up like white coals in a charcoal bed. This one said he
was 35. Carl Lewis isn't 35. He will always be 22, scorching
lane 4, his opponents dragged along in his shoesuck. This Carl
Lewis wasn't even entered in an Olympic sprint. Not the 100, not
the 200, not the relay: At the U.S. trials he missed qualifying
for any of the sprints by a Georgia mile, actually finishing
dead last in the 100. He grunted and moaned for a while about
not being the anchor in the 4x100, saying he had been promised
the spot by U.S. track and field coach Erv Hunt ("I'm still the
best 100 anchor in the world," Lewis said last week), but people
just sort of turned away and rolled their eyes as if Lewis were
Uncle Milt at Thanksgiving, challenging everybody to wrestle.
One day in Atlanta a man and his child went up to Lewis, and the
man said, "Mr. Lewis, my father took me to see you in Los
Angeles!" That was a crusher. And when Lewis was around the U.S.
women gymnasts last week, he said he felt slightly older than
carbon. No wonder. When Lewis made his first Olympic team, in
1980, Dominique Moceanu hadn't been born.
In Atlanta, Lewis was less an athlete than a sort of complicated
memorial. He was selected to represent the athletes of 1984
during the opening ceremonies and later was honored as one of
100 golden Olympians at a banquet celebrating the Games'
centennial. One member of the U.S. team, marathoner Jenny
Spangler, probably wouldn't have made it to the '96 Games had
she not been among the several athletes Lewis personally
sponsored at the trials. Here he was, wanting to be feared but
getting bronzed instead.
This Carl Lewis had so little to do. Only one event for the man
who used to buzz from 100 heat to long jump final to 200
semifinal in a single day? This Lewis was wandering around with
time on his hands. It was like seeing Martha Stewart with her
feet up, tossing cards into a hat.
What Lewis had become in this, his final Olympics, was just
another athlete thrilled to have made the team and praying to
win a medal. "I'll be just like 99 percent of all the other
athletes," he wrote in his America Online column before the
Games, "and it's the first time in my adult life that I can
actually say that." He had qualified for the long jump by an
inch, and it was an upset that he had made it at all. It would
be even more of a shock if he won a medal. His longest jump this
year--27'2 3/4", at the trials--was more than two feet short of
Mike Powell's world-record 29'4 1/2".
Still, none of this bothered him. In fact he seemed to love the
challenge. "I'm not afraid to lose," he said--and the admission
made him smile. For the first time in his Olympic career Lewis
could finger paint his way through the Games instead of having
to reproduce the Sistine Chapel.
This Lewis was less scripted, more spontaneous. He has always
seen life as a drama and himself as the third act, but in
Atlanta, Lewis was emotional right from the start. He set an
American Olympic record for Kleenex. When U.S. gymnast Dominique
Dawes stumbled and fell out of medal contention in the
all-around competition last Thursday, Lewis stood in the stands
and cried. When a swimmer, not even an American, broke down and
cried one day over making the finals, Lewis sat in the stands
and cried too. He would think of his father, who was buried in
1987 with Carl's first gold medal in his hands, and tear up. "I
don't know," Lewis said in a quiet moment. "You get older, you
start appreciating things more." Even Olympics.
But a song from the old days kept playing on his mind's jukebox.
He had this epiphany during a workout in Houston before he flew
to Atlanta. His jumps were perfect. His sprints were perfect.
His muscles felt fine, his spirits finer. The allergies were
gone, as were the cramps that had bugged him during this year's
trials. He was climbing out of the long jump pit when it hit
him. "All of a sudden I had this eerie feeling that I was
winning the gold medal," he said. "Right then. And that's when I
said to myself, You know, you could win this."
He started thinking about one more victory lap. Start in L.A.
and end in Atlanta. Lewis got his game plan ready. "I want to
get 'em with the first jump," he said. "I've won Olympics with
my first jump. I just want to jump 28 feet and see what happens."
The way Lewis was jumping in the qualifying, it looked as if he
would have to see what happened from the stands. Twelve would go
on to the finals, but on his first try Lewis jumped like a man
in marble shoes, going a measly 26' 1/4" to rank 11th. On the
second try he aborted at takeoff, leaving him very uh-oh 15th.
And that's where things stood as Lewis readied for his third and
last try, wiggling nervously and looking down that long runway
into the rest of his life. "No way I wanted that to be my last
experience in the Olympics," Lewis said. Faced with do or die,
he did, flying not only into the top 12, but into the top one,
hang-gliding 27' 2 1/2". It was the longest jump of the night
and the most thrilling qualifying Olympic leap since Jesse Owens
took a tip from Luz Long.
As Lewis left the track that exhausting night, a red-eyed
Jeffrey Marx, Lewis's biographer, reached out across a
barricade, arm-tackled him to his chest and said, "You're going
to win this thing." Lewis looked at him as if he were telling
him the sky is up. "Oh, I know I am," he said. "Absolutely."
So one last time, in his neat-as-a-pin hotel room at the
Sheraton in Atlanta, he laid out his Olympic uniform as he
always has--the singlet over the back of the chair, the shorts
on the seat, the socks over the shorts and the long jump shoes
in front, a dream just waiting to be filled.
By 10 p.m. on Monday, July 29, 1996, Lewis had realized one of
his wildest dreams yet.
"How the hell did you all get in my dream?" he asked as he sat
down at his press conference.
And when they called him forward to his last Olympic victory
stand in that sweet Georgia night, he covered his face with his
hands again and again, as if even he couldn't believe this. And
before they played the first note, he was crying again.
Boy, some guys just can't stand happy endings.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER PHOTO The BEST EVER Kerri Strug guts it out. Michelle Smith makes waves. Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson tear up the track. And Carl Lewis? By soaring, at 35, to his ninth gold medal, his fourth straight in the long jump, Lewis lifts the spirits of a Games shaken by tragedy. History's greatest Olympian bows out in style. [Carl Lewis landing in long jump pit]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER GATEFOLD COVER [See caption above--Carl Lewis with arms raised in victory]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Lewis's third jump, which went 27'10 3/4", produced the ninth gold of his glittering Olympic career. [Carl Lewis long jumping]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. After an injured Powell fell face-down in the long jump pit, Lewis again stood tall on the medal stand. [Mike Powell in long jump pit; Carl Lewis wearing Olympic gold medal]