Sports
Illustrated Daily, July 30, 1996

Sports Illustrated Daily Feature Story

Fourth & Long

With few challengers, Carl Lewis leaped to yet another gold medal in the long jump

by Tim Layden

The older man, the one who would soon own his ninth Olympic gold medal, lay on his back at the end of the long jump runway in Olympic Stadium, dressed in full sweats, leaning back on his elbows between jumps. The younger man, seeking his first individual gold, the trophy that his mantel lacked, swept past in a hail of camera flashes, tearing down the backstretch of the 400 meters to a thunderous roar. It was thought that this would be the night when the younger man would supplant the older man as the king of track and field. But there must be room for both Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson.

Carl Lewis

Lewis leaped into the lead on his third attempt, a jump that was good enough to stand up for the night.

photograph by
Walter Iooss Jr.


Last night belonged to the 35-year-old Lewis, who won that ninth gold and was victorious in his signature event for the fourth consecutive Olympics, matching Al Oerter, who won the discus for the U.S. four times from 1956 to '68. Lewis jumped 27'10-3/4", his longest nonaltitude jump since—is this perfect?—his winning jump at the Barcelona Games four years ago. This he did one hour before Johnson ripped around the final curve of the 400 and powered home eight meters clear of Great Britain's Roger Black in an Olympic record 43.49 seconds, .20 of a second off Butch Reynolds's eight-year-old world record. It was a night in which history trumped achievement but in which there was plenty of glory for both men.

Johnson has repeatedly been asked if he wishes Lewis would relinquish his position at the top of the track world, and even in the wake of their victories he offered his most pointed response. "As far as Carl trying to be the premier athlete in track and field, I think he should step down from there," Johnson said. "[But] my job is not to replace Carl Lewis. I'm trying to win as many gold medals as I can. He wanted to come to the trials and try to make all three teams [the 100, the 200 and the long jump]. I feel like he would have been better off concentrating on the long jump, which is the only one he made. But Carl is his own man. I'm trying to concentrate on Michael, not Carl."

It was a difficult moment for Johnson. Since 1991 he has been the most skilled and versatile sprinter in the world, yet events had conspired to keep him from standing alone at the top of an Olympic medal stand (he won a relay gold in '92). The most notable event was in Barcelona, where as a heavy favorite in the 200 he came down with a case of food poisoning and failed to qualify for the finals. "This makes up for 1992," Johnson said. But regardless of his passion and his talent and even his frustration, it was not enough to steal the light from the brilliant Lewis.

Johnson

To the surprise of no one, Johnson was in control throughout the 400.

photograph by
Richard Mackson


Lewis was given a chance to win his historic gold because the long jump field was not strong—not because his form merited it. Lewis had finished third at the U.S. trials in June and advanced past Sunday night's qualifying round only after jumping 27'2-1/2" on his last attempt. Nevertheless, it has been a most remarkable season for Lewis. After missing large chunks of 1993, '94 and '95 with injuries and illness, he restored himself this year with a new diet, weightlifting and a dedication to joy. "The journey is truly the most important thing to me this time," Lewis said after the trials.

Last night he ran through the pit on his first attempt, then jumped a pedestrian 26'8-1/2" on his second, which left him in second place. But on his third jump, under a moon shrouded in mist, Lewis ripped down the runway with speed reminiscent of that which took him to two Olympic gold medals in the 100 (1984 and '88). He sailed into the air, hanging with his familiar hitch kick, and landed in the soft sand 27'10-3/4" away. Even as Lewis fell toward the earth, he looked at the measuring board next to him, and upon leaving the pit, fell backward on the ground next to it. As the distance was announced, he rose and raised his arms to the sky. It was the shortest of his four gold medal jumps, and the first time since 1976 that the long jump gold medalist hadn't gone 28 feet. That didn't matter in the least. And he would have to wait to see if that jump would stand up, as the others in the eight-man field each had three more chances to beat his mark. Most dangerous among them was world-record holder Mike Powell of the U.S.

"You want your Olympic experience to last forever," Lewis said later. "But after my third jump I wanted it to end."

Powell fouled on his fourth and fifth attempts, and after the latter he limped from the sand, holding his left groin muscle. In a curious and touching interplay, Powell hobbled in pain as Johnson was taking his victory lap. Johnson stopped to see him, and later Powell made a dramatic final attempt. He pounded down the runway and leaped, but as he tried to kick his left leg forward, he grimaced and fell face first in the sand, his body bathed in grains like that of a surfer cast ashore.

Masterkova

Masterkova was an upset winner in the women's 800.

photograph by
Peter Read Miller


"I didn't pull it, but I strained it," Powell said. "It hurt enough that I couldn't jump. I can't believe it. I didn't win. I didn't get a chance to medal. [The winning jump] wasn't that far." Powell was asked about Lewis. He paused as if collecting his thoughts, started to speak and then stopped. He shook his head and walked away into the belly of the stadium.

It is Lewis's legacy that he has never been the most popular of athletes. "All the years I've been competing in Europe, I never saw him eat dinner with other athletes," said sprinter Linford Christie of Great Britain. Yet as Powell refused to acknowledge Lewis's greatness, and as Johnson tried to bring it to an end at its pinnacle, Lewis called for a halt to the sniping.

"There's no greatest athlete in track and field," he said. "If we had 30-some Carl Lewises and Michael Johnsons, there would be no other sports. Michael Johnson needs to realize that there's no sole star in track and field. I don't know what it is that I'm supposed to be relinquishing." And then he issued a reminder to Johnson. "If I hadn't changed the money standard in the sport," said Lewis, "Michael wouldn't be making as much as he is right now."

Perhaps the problem is that Lewis has long been different from the traditional track athlete, many of whom were modest amateurs. Lewis promoted himself. "A lot of people want Carl to be like Jesse Owens," said Tom Tellez, Lewis's longtime coach. "He just isn't. He's totally different. Carl has his own ideas. But I think, right now, people understand Carl better than at any other time in his career."

Surely U.S. long jumper Joe Greene does. Greene, the 29-year-old bronze medalist, heaped mountains of praise on Lewis. "He's a great athlete; gosh, he's a great athlete," said Greene. "I'm 29 and my body feels like it's 60. Carl's 35 and he's still doing this. Someday I hope my kids ask me, 'Dad, did you ever beat Carl Lewis?' That's his legacy."

Masterkova

Even with an Olympic record in the 110 hurdles, Allen Johnson was only the second-best Johnson on the track.

photograph by
Bill Frakes


Johnson's legacy could grow on Thursday night, when he attempts to become the first man in Olympic history to win the 200 and the 400 in the same Games. Last night he dominated the 400, and at the same time again became a victim of his own greatness. As Johnson crossed the line, he glanced at the electronic clock next to the track, and when he saw the time, he seemed to delay his celebration slightly. "I've said for two years that I know I have an opportunity to break the world record," Johnson said. "But there are so many conditions that have to be right. This might be my only opportunity to win a gold medal. There will be other chances to break the world record."

His race was, as always, a demonstration of controlled power. He seemed to glide through the opening 200, then opened up as he came off the final turn. He never looked back, as he had in his preliminary heats. "The only way to beat Michael Johnson is if he makes a mistake," said Black. "And he doesn't make them, at least not that I've seen. I was running for the silver medal tonight. For me, when Michael is running, the silver medal is my gold medal."

It was not only a night for Johnson and Lewis. Allen Johnson of the U.S. won the 110-meter hurdles in an Olympic record 12.95. Svetlana Masterkova of Russia was an upset winner in the women's 800, holding off Ana Quirot of Cuba and Maria Mutola of Mozambique to win in 1:57.73. Masterkova couldn't believe the result herself, dashing around the track after her victory and gesturing with her arms to the crowd. And in the dying minutes of the evening, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ran one of the most brilliant distance races in Olympic history, taking the 10,000 in an Olympic record 27:07.34. Like Michael Johnson, Gebrselassie will attempt a double as the favorite in Saturday's 5,000.

But the enduring images from this night were of two men only. Of Michael Johnson and Lewis, each circling the stadium track, each carrying his own flag. Of both of them, on the top step of the medal stand, Johnson weeping, Lewis blowing a kiss into the night.

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