I'm standing at the finish line for the men's invitational 100 meters at the Texas Relays last Saturday in Austin. Announcer Bill Melton is introducing the starters in the race, saving the most famous of them for last, at which point he turns into ring announcer Michael Buffer, minus the spiffy tux and that Let's get ready to rummm-ble! shtick. Melton takes 78 seconds to list every achievement of Carl Lewis's 18-year international career except the time he posed for a billboard in those kinky high heels.
I'm standing there in the cool sunshine, looking down the track at the 34-year-old Lewis in his shimmering yellow uniform, and I'm thinking, This isn't an introduction, it's a eulogy. It's not a race, it's a farewell tour. Somebody give this man a set of golf clubs and walk him off the track, please.
It seems this way mostly because the last time Lewis ran in a significant meet—in the 60 meters at the U.S. Indoor Championships on March 2—he was jaw-droppingly bad, finishing dead last in a morning heat. Not a final. Not a semi. A heat. Last. It wasn't as embarrassing as Willie Mays with the New York Mets or Joe Namath with the Los Angeles Rams, but for anyone who had taken pleasure in the pure athletic beauty of Carl Lewis running fast in his prime, it was mighty sad. Olympic 100-meter champion Linford Christie of England, who had himself just turned 36, watched that race on television. "Didn't show well," was his cold analysis. "I'd never write Carl off, but he should be able to run faster than he did without training a day."
That performance followed a 1995 outdoor season in which Lewis finished sixth in the 100 meters and second in the long jump at the U.S. nationals, and didn't compete at the world championships, scratching from the only individual event in which he had qualified (the long jump) with an injured hamstring. The process was evident: a man getting older and slower. We have seen it many times. Lewis only seemed to make it worse by denying the obvious. He boldly petitioned for a change in the Atlanta Olympic schedule that would allow him to compete in the 100 and 200 meters and the long jump, presumably so that he could attempt to duplicate his four-gold-medal performance of 12 years ago in Los Angeles, which also included the 4¥ 100-meter relay. Although he was granted that schedule change, it was far from certain that Lewis would make the U.S. team in any of the three events, and he seemed likely not to make it in either sprint.
But then on Saturday afternoon a remarkable thing happened. After the introduction—Lewis called it "embarrassing"—he swallowed up Jon Drummond, the top-ranked U.S. sprinter last year, 20 meters from the finish and won the race in a wind-aided 10.10 seconds. "My top-end speed was there," Lewis said, "and it's been a long time since I could say that. I mean years." He paused, smiled knowingly, and added, "There's been some doubt lately."
Lewis is the greatest athlete in U.S. track and field history. End of discussion. In three Olympics he has won nine medals, eight of them gold. And yet history is oddly apathetic toward him. His quadruple gold in 1984 (matching Jesse Owens's feat of '36) was derided for its accompanying self-promotion. Lewis was booed in the Los Angeles Coliseum for not taking all of his jumps en route to winning the long jump, which he said he did because the unnecessary jumps would have tired him for the 200. In victory he somehow became a villain. Four years later in Seoul he got the gold in the 100 only because Ben Johnson was disqualified for using steroids. For Lewis there was always a catch. Only when he anchored the U.S. to an Olympic and world record in the 4¥ 100-meter relay in Barcelona in 1992 did he seem fully exultant. But most of his victories have been dampened by expectation or misunderstanding. It seems as though he has seldom been truly free to celebrate or to be celebrated, and that is a shame.
This, then, is his chance. These coming Olympics have already been given over to Michael Johnson, a huge talent who will attempt to win gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters, an unprecedented double. Few are watching Lewis, except in occasional pity. He is now in that most cherished position: He is an underdog. He is George Foreman without the flab.
A windy 10.10 won't win a gold medal (Lewis's best is a legal 9.86, run in 1991). Maybe it wouldn't even put Lewis on the U.S. team. But to hell with that. It was the old Carl Lewis on Saturday, slicing the air with his hands, seeming to accelerate at 70 meters when physiology demands that he must slow down, bringing a guttural roar from the crowd and then bursting into celebration at the finish. There is something left. And if it is enough to carry him to Atlanta and to put him on the podium, then that would be a moment to cherish, to leave a sweet taste in the mouth. Finally. For him. For the rest of us, too.