Sometime in 1971, Carl Lewis, then 10, had the opportunity to be photographed with the American great Jesse Owens, who advised the young kid “to have fun in life.”
Little would have Owens realised then that his long-standing record of four golds at Berlin 1936 would be emulated by Lewis, who through the better part of the 1980s and 1990s would reign as king of both the track and the field.
It is said that the young Carl Lewis was so small and short that his sister used to jocularly call him “shorty.” Lewis then had such a spurt in height at 15 that his parents had to put him in crutches for more than three weeks to help his body adjust and for him to get to his feet and walk again. His precocious talent at jumping and running was identified soon thereafter as Lewis moved out of school from his hometown of Willingboro to the University of Houston.
It was while at university that Lewis found himself well within the trappings of a hero-in-the-making, marking the start of his domination in the short sprints and the long jump that would see the rest of the world worship him as a superstar in later years, overtaken by his zeal and commitment to the sport.
At 19, he was selected to represent his country at Moscow 1980 but had to stay at home as the United States chose to boycott the Games on account of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan.
It certainly was a big body blow for the young athlete, but Lewis typically enough came out of it strongly as he worked himself to emerge as the biggest draw at Los Angeles 1984, with gold pickings in the 100m 200m, long jump and the 400m relay – similar to what Owens did exactly 48 years before and a feat that until then had remained without parallel.
Getting to Seoul 1988 as a true legend, Lewis did not disappoint as he finished with a tally of two more gold medals and a silver, earning his second consecutive crown – the first by an athlete at the Games – in the long jump, and then became part of the most sensational story of the event, given pole position in the 100m after Canadian Ben Johnson was stripped of the gold medal following a positive dope test.
Four years later in Barcelona, Lewis again won two gold medals, in the long jump and the 400m relay, before becoming the third athlete to win four on the trot at Atlanta 1996 where, at 35, he was nowhere near his best but still managed to leap to a resounding victory. Beyond the Games, Lewis’ still-to-be-unsurpassed record of 65 straight victories in the long jump is a testimony to the domination that he enjoyed in the event.
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