What's funny is that all last week there was a guy bopping around Atlanta saying he was Carl Lewis, but he sure didn't seem like Carl Lewis. The real Carl Lewis doesn't have gray hair popping up like white coals in a charcoal bed. This one said he was 35. Carl Lewis isn't 35. He will always be 22, scorching lane 4, his opponents dragged along in his shoesuck. This Carl Lewis wasn't even entered in an Olympic sprint. Not the 100, not the 200, not the relay: At the U.S. trials he missed qualifying for any of the sprints by a Georgia mile, actually finishing dead last in the 100. He grunted and moaned for a while about not being the anchor in the 4 x 100, saying he had been promised the spot by U.S. track and field coach Erv Hunt ("I'm still the best 100 anchor in the world," Lewis said last week), but people just sort of turned away and rolled their eyes as if Lewis were Uncle Milt at Thanksgiving, challenging everybody to wrestle.
One day in Atlanta a man and his child went up to Lewis, and the man said, "Mr. Lewis, my father took me to see you in Los Angeles!" That was a crusher. And when Lewis was around the U.S. women gymnasts last week, he said he felt slightly older than carbon. No wonder. When Lewis made his first Olympic team, in 1980, Dominique Moceanu hadn't been born.
In Atlanta, Lewis was less an athlete than a sort of complicated memorial. He was selected to represent the athletes of 1984 during the opening ceremonies and later was honored as one of 100 golden Olympians at a banquet celebrating the Games' centennial. One member of the U.S. team, marathoner Jenny Spangler, probably wouldn't have made it to the '96 Games had she not been among the several athletes Lewis personally sponsored at the trials. Here he was, wanting to be feared but getting bronzed instead.
This Carl Lewis had so little to do. Only one event for the man who used to buzz from 100 heat to long jump final to 200 semifinal in a single day? This Lewis was wandering around with time on his hands. It was like seeing Martha Stewart with her feet up, tossing cards into a hat.
What Lewis had become in this, his final Olympics, was just another athlete thrilled to have made the team and praying to win a medal. "I'll be just like 99 percent of all the other athletes," he wrote in his America Online column before the Games, "and it's the first time in my adult life that I can actually say that." He had qualified for the long jump by an inch, and it was an upset that he had made it at all. It would be even more of a shock if he won a medal. His longest jump this year—27'2�", at the trials—was more than two feet short of Mike Powell's world-record 29'4�".
Still, none of this bothered him. In fact he seemed to love the challenge. "I'm not afraid to lose," he said—and the admission made him smile. For the first time in his Olympic career Lewis could finger paint his way through the Games instead of having to reproduce the Sistine Chapel.
This Lewis was less scripted, more spontaneous. He has always seen life as a drama and himself as the third act, but in Atlanta, Lewis was emotional right from the start. He set an American Olympic record for Kleenex. When U.S. gymnast Dominique Dawes stumbled and fell out of medal contention in the all-around competition last Thursday, Lewis stood in the stands and cried. When a swimmer, not even an American, broke down and cried one day over making the finals, Lewis sat in the stands and cried too. He would think of his father, who was buried in 1987 with Carl's first gold medal in his hands, and tear up. "I don't know," Lewis said in a quiet moment. "You get older, you start appreciating things more." Even Olympics.
But a song from the old days kept playing on his mind's jukebox. He had this epiphany during a workout in Houston before he flew to Atlanta. His jumps were perfect. His sprints were perfect. His muscles fell fine, his spirits liner. The allergies were gone, as were the cramps that had bugged him during this year's trials. He was climbing out of the long jump pit when it hit him. "All of a sudden I had this eerie feeling that I was winning the gold medal," he said. "Right then. And that's when I said to myself, You know, you could win this."
He started thinking about one more victory lap. Start in L.A. and end in Atlanta. Lewis got his game plan ready. "I want to get 'em with the first jump," he said. "I've won Olympics with my first jump. I just want to jump 28 feet and see what happens."
The way Lewis was jumping in the qualifying, it looked as if he would have to see what happened from the stands. Twelve would go on to the finals, but on his first try Lewis jumped like a man in marble shoes, going a measly 26'�" to rank 11th. On the second try he aborted at takeoff, leaving him very uh-oh 15th. And that's where things stood as Lewis readied for his third and last try, wiggling nervously and looking down that long runway into the rest of his life. "No way I wanted that to be my last experience in the Olympics," Lewis said. Faced with do or die, he did, flying not only into the top 12, but into the top one, hang-gliding 27"2�". It was the longest jump of the night and the most thrilling qualifying Olympic leap since Jesse Owens took a tip from Luz Long.