COVER

FIERCE RIVALS ON THE TRACK

NEIL WILSON August 8 1988
COVER

FIERCE RIVALS ON THE TRACK

NEIL WILSON August 8 1988

FIERCE RIVALS ON THE TRACK

COVER

It was after midnight in Rick’s Bar in Indianapolis and four hours after Carl Lewis had lost a 200-m race for the first time in two years. Lewis— much of his former flamboyance now muted—picked at a shrimp salad and took a rest from addressing the world on the subject of Carl Lewis. Across the table sat Joe DeLoach, Lewis’s friend and training partner—and the man who had defeated him a few hours earlier during the U.S. track and field trials last month. DeLoach recalled the first time that he and Lewis had met: at a 1985 track meet in Dallas. DeLoach—a little-known runner at the time—had asked for Lewis’s autograph. Lewis did not remember the incident, but he laughed at the story anyway. Said Lewis: “You’re getting old when the autograph hunters beat you.”

Pain: Lewis says that he cannot remember whether Ben Johnson ever asked for his autograph, but he does recall every race that they have run together. Hailed as the United States’ greatest athlete, Lewis has beaten the Canadian star eight times and has been beaten by Johnson on six occasions, including the past five races. The most recent—and, for Lewis, most painfulloss occurred at the world track and field championships in Rome last August. Lewis turned in his best time ever in the 100-m event—9.93 seconds—but lost to Johnson’s astonishing record time of 9.83. Now, Lewis argues, it is his turn to win, claiming that the Canadian star has already run his best race. Said Lewis: “The standard is harder now, but I think I am going to be better this time.”

By that, Lewis means the next time the two men compete, which could be in Zurich later this month—or at the Summer Olympic Games, which begin in Seoul on Sept. 17. And when they finally do settle tensely over the starting blocks, the fierce, long-standing rivalry between the two—and the unkind words they have hurled at one another over the years—will heighten the drama of the occasion.

Sneer: When the 27-year-old Lewis, with a brisk wind behind him, ran 100 m in Indianapolis in just 9.78 seconds, Johnson sneered. “In legal conditions, that would have been, maybe, a 10.05,” said Johnson in Toronto. “If I had been there, I would have run a 9.4.” He add-

ed: “I won’t waste my time talking about Carl. He’s not number 1 anymore.”

For his part, Lewis is working hard to modify the controversial image that brought him sharp criticism during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. There, Lewis achieved the remarkable feat of winning four gold medals: in the long jump, the 100-m and 200-m events and the 400-m relay. By doing so, Lewis became the first athlete to duplicate the feat of the great U.S. athlete Jesse

Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But Lewis—whose manager once predicted that he would rival singer Michael Jackson as an international star— was booed during the Los Angeles Games when he decided not to seek a world record in his favorite event, the long jump—and he angered U.S. sports journalists by refusing media interviews after his medal victories. Lewis’s offtrack appearance at the time also hampered his desire to be seen as an allAmerican hero. Given to wearing fur coats, leather trousers—and even a sequined tracksuit—Lewis was mocked by British decathlete Daley Thompson. And although Lewis strove to enlarge his appeal in 1985 by singing on a pop record, it sold only a few copies.

Death: These days, Lewis is more deferential and anxious to please his stillnumerous critics. According to his friends and family, that change in attitude is attributable to his reception in Los Angeles and to the death last year of his father, Bill. That loss altered the runner’s perspective on life. Lewis symbolically buried with his father the Olympic gold medal that he won in the 100-m event and, some say, a portion of his youthful abrasiveness as well.

dn any event, Carl Lewis’s fall from grace may have been inevitable, thanks

to the exaggerated expectations—and promotional hype—that developed long before he reached his athletic peak. As a boy growing up in Willingboro, N.J., Lewis gravitated toward an activity that occupied much of his parents’ time: both were track and field coaches at local high schools. Eventually, Lewis himself became a high-school track star before going on to the University of Houston, where track coach Thomas Tellez oversaw his development. Indeed, Tellez remained as Lewis’s coach even after a poor academic record forced the emerging star to drop out of school in 1982. Running in U.S. and international track meets during the early 1980s, Lewis amassed an impressive list of records, including a U.S. 200-m record and a world indoor long-jump record.

Still, when Lewis qualified for four Olympic events in 1984, the U.S. media showered accolades upon him that were out of all proportion to his actual accomplishments at the time. Trumpeted Time magazine, for one: “How fast he runs, how far he jumps, may serve to establish the precise lengths to which men can go. Gentler than a superman, more delicate than the common perception of a strong man, Lewis is physically the most advanced human being in the world, and about to become the most famous global sports figure since Muhammad Ali.”

Praise: Despite that heavy burden of praise,

Lewis did win all four of his Olympic events. But to many observers, his moment of glory seemed calculated and contrived, as though it were a production intended only to launch Carl Lewis Inc.

Even before he began hauling in gold medals,

Lewis attracted adverse publicity at the 1984 Games by arranging to stay at a hotel rather than share accommodation in one of the official Olympic villages. Amid a chorus of rising protests from other athletes, he grudgingly agreed to live in a village—but was rarely seen there.

A more serious backlash developed when Lewis competed in the long-jump event that year. His second jump—out of the maximum of six allowed each athlete—was impressive, but fell one foot, 2Vi inches short of breaking the world record of 29 feet, 2M> inches set by American Robert Beamon at the Mexico City Games in 1968. When Lewis, who

was leading in the 1984 competition, decided not to jump again, the crowd vigorously booed him. “I had said many times before that if I was ahead, I wouldn’t try for the record,” Lewis explained later. “I had run in two 200-m heats in the morning and I had a race the next day, and I wanted to conserve my energy.” Lewis insists that he does not regret such actions. Said Lewis: “I got everything I wanted out of 1984. I wouldn’t have had it any different. It happened the way it did, and I don’t think I’ve changed anything because of it. I’m a happy man. I have everything I want.”

Sharp: Certainly, he has amassed considerable wealth and material possessions, including an elegant house in downtown Houston where he keeps his two Rottweiler dogs, a collection of crystal that he has acquired in his travels and an extensive wardrobe of expensive, flamboyantly cut clothes. Such items are clearly the playthings of a wealthy man, but Lewis will not say whether his income from endorsements and appearance fees has made him a millionaire. “Money never meant all that much to me,” said Lewis. “Sure, I like sharp suits and nice things, but it’s only part of everything. Whatever I have won’t bring my father back. I would give all I have to have him sitting at this table.”

Now Lewis says that he hopes to soon reclaim the title of the world’s fastest man. In fact, until Johnson’s injury forced him to stop running, advisers for the two runners had been negotiating a series of match races. Declared Lewis: “Rivalry is good for the I sport because of the at£ tention it focuses on g track. That’s the real “l frustration —that we I haven’t been able to keep 5 it going through this

1 year.”

2 And Lewis insists that Johnson’s feats do not prey on his mind. Added

Lewis: “I can’t worry about Ben Johnson. And as for Seoul, I’m not thinking of four gold medals. I’m thinking of one at a time, same as I did in 1984, and that was successful. The 100-metre is my next Olympic race and that’s as far ahead as I’m looking.” It is also exactly where Ben Johnson is looking—and he has proved before that he can make life difficult for a would-be American hero.

— NEIL WILSON in Indianapolis