Carl Lewis - Best Athlete of the century

Competitive athletics is unlikely to come across another phenomenon called Carlton Frederick Lewis. The saga of achievements by this wonderful human specimen constitutes the finest part of history in the Olympics.

Nine golds and one silver medal in four Olympics from 1984 to 1996, apart from 10 medals (eight gold medals, one silver and one bronze) in the World Championship give Lewis not only immortality but the title as the “best athlete of the century.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 1, 1961, Carl Lewis blossomed into a star even at the age of 13. His mother Evelyn was an Olympian, who took part in 1952 in Helsinki. Lewis’s sister Carol was also part of the U.S. squad in Los Angeles. At the turn of the 1980s, he was acknowledged as World No. 1 in 100 metres and long jump. Displaying the passion to equal the legendary Jesse Owens’ 1936 record of four medals in one Olympics, Lewis practised in sprints (100, 200, 4 x100 relay) and the long jump. He etched his name in each event in letters of gold. The home Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 — he had qualified for the Moscow Games also — provided the perfect theatre for Lewis to exhibit his excellence. He won the 100 (9.99s) and 200 (19.80s OR), long jump (8.54m) and the 4x100 relay in world record time of 37.83 in the company of Sam Graddy, Ron Brown and Calvin Smith. He set the WR again with Michael Marsh, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell at 37.40s in Barcelona.

But the duel with Ben Johnson in 1988 for the 100 metres became historic for the dope failure of the winner. With an Olympic record of 9.92s, Lewis, who finished second, became the gold medallist.

In Barcelona, Lewis, struggling to stay fit and suffering the ignominy of drug related allegations in 1987, began concentrating on the relay and long jump. No one was more aware than Lewis about the futility of fighting for Bob Beamon’s record. He won the relay gold and the long jump (8.67).

He was thirsting to bid ‘adieu’ before his home crowd and Atlanta in 1996 gave the perfect setting. He didn’t qualify for the sprint events — he placed third in the U.S. trials, but he struck with a jump of 8.50m for his ninth gold — only the fourth athlete to win nine gold medals and the third to triumph in the same event four times.

After retirement, Carl Lewis figured in a few TV serials and documentaries. He was also Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

S. Thyagarajan