120 years, 120 stories (Part 33) : Carl Lewis, the controversial and celebrated ‘sportsman of the century’


The Olympics have had been the platform where the champion athletes were born – the ones who have dominated the Games for more than just a single edition. To talk of such greats, the name of one of the greatest athletes of all time, Carl Lewis, comes in an instant.

Frederick Carlton Lewis – the nine-time Olympics champion – was one of the most illustrated sportsperson in the fabled 120 year old history of Olympics. The International Association of Athletics Federation has duly acknowledged him as the “World Athlete of the Century”, while the International Olympic Committee accredited his iconic career by bestowing him with the honour of “Sportsman of the Century”.

Though Carl Lewis qualified for the 1980 Moscow Games, he could only make his debut in the biggest sporting spectacle in the world four years down the line at Los Angeles as the USA boycotted the event in the Soviet Union for political reasons. In between 1980 and 1984, he had announced his supremacy in style winning multiple events at the World Championships.

Coming to the 1984 Olympics which was hosted in America itself, Lewis won the 100m gold clocking 9.99 seconds. Infamous for his outlandish and premature celebrations and of uncharacteristic mannerisms as objected to by many, the American did not win many accolades from either the media or the crowd. In fact, the crowd jeered him as he won three more gold in 200m (thus winning the rare 100m and 200m double), 4X100m relay and the long jump – the latter being an event which he would go on to win thrice in future.

Soon after the Games were over, Carl Lewis, contrary to win more sponsorships and endorsements owing to his rare feat of winning 4 gold medals in athletics by an American (Jesse Owens being the only other), lost his major sponsor of three years Nike owing mainly to his public shunning mannerism and supposed sexual orientation.

In the next Games at Seoul in 1988, Lewis became the first man (Usain Bolt later became the second in London 2012) in the history of Olympics to defend his 100m gold and that too in a dramatic climax. Lewis, at that time, was facing strong competition from Canada’s Ben Johnson who looked to be a strong contender for the 10-second race (billed as the greatest track event of the Olympics) having beaten the former on numerous occasions in the last couple of years. In the finals, Johnson clocked 9.77 seconds to victory over Lewis (9.92 sec). However, a failed drug test from Johnson promoted the losing finalist Lewis to his second straight Olympic gold in the 100m.

However in 2003, years later after Lewis bade farewell to the sport in 1997, reports of the American himself doped in the 1988 Games surfaced though he was given a reprieve by the investigating authorities having satisfied with his explanations. In the long jump event, Lewis thwarted the challenges from fellow countrymen – Mike Powell and Larry Myricks – to win gold and becoming the only man to defend the long jump title successfully. The accomplished American’s only non-gold Olympic medal came in the form of silver in the 200m.

On the back of 1991 World Championships considered to be among the best in his resume where he clocked world records in 100m and 4X100m relay, Lewis registered two more Olympic gold medals at the subsequent Barcelona Games in 1992. Lewis who had 65 consecutive long jump victories spanning a decade under his belt, went on to win a hat-trick of the same at the Olympics and also featured in a world record victory (37.40 sec) in 4X100m relay – a record that will stand for 16 years henceforth.

In his final Olympic swansong at the Atlanta Games in 1996, Carl Lewis won his fourth gold in the long-distance jumping – making him only the third Olympian to win the same event four times. It was his ninth career Olympic gold – a joint record at that time. Desperate to win a record 10th, Lewis was eager to run the 4X100m relay (where any track and field member can participate irrespective of qualification) but was denied a place in the team as the selectors thought the quartets who are scheduled to run the event are better placed than the 35-year old veteran. But the nine-gold star had the last laugh when the USA team settled for silver in the finals. Lewis retired from the game the following year.

Carl Lewis’ record of nine career gold has since then surpassed by the American swimming sensation Michael Phelps. Lewis still ranks fifth in the list of most medals in Olympic career and joint second in case of number of gold won. Undoubtedly, it would take something out of ordinary for somebody to match his legacy in future and it would be interesting to see if Usain Bolt can emulate him in Rio the coming August.

Photo by Doha Stadium Plus