Carl Lewis speaks out on Bolt, U.S. performance in Beijing, more
Last week, SI.com caught up with nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis at the Audi Best Buddies Challenge, a charity bicycle tour and fundraising event to help people with intellectual disabilities. Lewis weighed in on everything from Usain Bolt's record-breaking performance in Beijing to Team USA fumbling the baton in the relays.
SI.com: It's been few weeks since the Games; what do you think of Usain Bolt?
Lewis: I'm still working with the fact that he dropped from 10-flat to 9.6 in one year. I think there are some issues. I'm proud of America right now because we have the best random and most comprehensive drug testing program. Countries like Jamaica do not have a random program, so they can go months without being tested. I'm not saying anyone is on anything, but everyone needs to be on a level playing field.
SI.com: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but are you accusing Bolt of possibly doing something illegal in order to gain an advantage?
Lewis: No one is accusing anyone. But don't live by a different rule and expect the same kind of respect. They say, "Oh, we've been great for the sport." No, you have not. No country has had that kind of dominance. I'm not saying they've done anything for certain. I don't know. But how dare anybody feel that there shouldn't be scrutiny, especially in our sport?
The reality is that if I were running now, and had the performances I had in my past, I would expect them to say something. I wouldn't even be offended at the question. So when people ask me about Bolt, I say he could be the greatest athlete of all-time. But for someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don't question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you're a fool. Period.
SI.com: So when Bolt broke three world records and did it as easily as he seemed to, does that tip you off?
Lewis: Let's be real. Let me go through the list: Ben Johnson, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Tyson Gay and the two Jamaicans. Six people have run under 9.80 legally, three have tested positive, and one had a year out. Not to say [Bolt] is doing anything, but he's not going to have me saying he's great and then two years later he gets popped. If I don't trust it, what does the public think?
SI.com: To be fair, you reportedly tested positive three times before the 1988 Olympics for banned substances, a ruling that was overturned by the USOC due to inadvertent use.
Lewis: That was an issue where people tried to make something out of nothing. It got thrown out. I didn't lash out. They said I tested for stimulants found in over-the-counter cold medications. That's it. I did nothing wrong.
SI.com: What were your overall impressions of how Team USA did in Beijing?
Lewis: I was completely embarrassed that the United States could not pass the baton. I've been in track and field for 40 years and I've seen the baton dropped 10 times, and we dropped it twice in the Olympics.
Look, I love Lauryn Williams, but when I read she said the baton had a mind of its own, I honestly said that girl needs to be committed. Are you kidding me? It was her fault. And [Tyson Gay] shouldn't have been running, because he was hurt. I'll give him all the credit in the world because he never complained about his injury, so I got his back there. But he couldn't drive out properly, and when he put his hand back, it was sideways and you can't pass the baton like that. These are mechanical mistakes that a coach didn't see in practice.
SI.com: I was surprised to read IAAF President Lamine Diack recently say that Bolt winning three gold medals in Beijing was more impressive than you winning four in 1984 because he broke three world records and you only broke one with the relay team. Did you see that?
Lewis: Yes, and I sent him an e-mail. For him to make that judgment is wrong. He should talk about Usain on his own merits. Secondly, I said one of the problems in our sport is there is such an emphasis on records and here you are, the president of the federation, talking about records. The sport should be about competition.
You can compare us as sprinters, but the thing I am most proud of is that I did multiple events and I long-jumped. There is not a sprinter on the face of this Earth that can long-jump. I tell people all the time that I wasn't a sprinter that long-jumped, I was a long-jumper that sprinted, and that's a fact.
SI.com: Would you ever consider coaching?
Lewis: No. I'm not a coach and I know it. I'm too busy and it doesn't pay. I'm expensive. But I would always advise.
SI.com: How long is track going to have this black cloud over it, where every broken record is looked at with a skeptical eye?
Lewis: Until the athletes want to change it. People forget that I was the first one to speak out about Ben [Johnson], and I got crucified. A year later, I was a prophet. The athletes have to say, "No, this isn't right." They know who's on it. They need to step up.
I look at someone like [Jamaican track star] Veronica Campbell-Brown, who lives in the United States, and has been transparent and consistent. She won the worlds last year in the 100 meters and this year she can't even make the team? And you're going to tell me that shouldn't be questioned?
SI.com: Do you think American track athletes will ever get the fame and notoriety that you and your counterparts did before drugs tarnished the sport?
Lewis: If the sport doesn't have credibility, you're not going to get the sponsors. It has to come from the inside out and America has to lead the way. We're cleaning things up. But they have to go further. Other people have to speak out.
Here's what angers me: Antonio Pettigrew [a North Carolina assistant track coach who testified in federal court that he took human growth hormone and EPO between 1997-2001 while winning the 4x400 relay gold in the 2000 Olympics, a medal he returned in June] kept his job and he's coaching young athletes. This is wrong. There have to be consequences for your actions.
SI.com: You're one of the few people who can understand what Michael Phelps is going through since he's become an American hero and is thought of as possibly the greatest Olympian ever. Do you see similarities or differences in what he will have to endure outside of his sport?
Lewis: Michael is a great athlete. I know him, so I'm really happy for him and all that, but it changes everything. The unique difference, which I am so happy about, is his sport is 100 percent behind him. Mine was the absolute opposite.
SI.com: What's your take on people trying to compare you and Michael in terms of being the greatest Olympian?
Lewis: I've never been one to compare eras in sports and you can't compare swimming to track and field because there's no way in the world you can get as many medals in track and field as you can in swimming. We can run one or two relays; they can swim five. I didn't realize that of Spitz's seven gold medals in Munich, three were relays. Five of his nine golds were relays. I thought, "If I could run the 4x100, 4x200, and so on, I'd have this many medals." To me, it's not a matter of saying I'm better. It's not even worth comparing. We should just celebrate who he is and leave it at that.
SI.com: Even if the comparisons might not be fair or even make sense in certain situations, aren't you happy that you're name still comes up whenever there's a discussion about the best Olympian or Olympic performances?
Lewis: Honestly, the farther I get from competing, the clearer becomes the significance of what I accomplished. When I was doing it, I don't want to say it wasn't a big deal, but in my mind I was just like a person going to work every day. Only 10 years later do you find out you invented something your second year on the job that revolutionized your business. I was at the Olympics in 2004 and Maurice Greene makes this ridiculous comment that he's the greatest of all-time. All of a sudden, people are asking me about that. Then Justin [Gatlin] wins and can be the first to win the 100 and 200 since me. So here we go again. It was the same thing this year with Phelps. Can he win the most gold medals? Can Bolt win the 100 and 200?
We get caught up in comparing all the time. I have this discussion with young people. They'll tell me Beyonce is better than so-and-so. Why can't we just say that Beyonce is amazing and so-and-so is amazing? I mean Ella Fitzgerald is amazing. Sarah Vaughan is amazing. Whitney Houston is amazing. Why do you have to say that Beyonce is better? Let's just be happy that we had a chance to celebrate all of them.