It wasn't supposed to happen. It couldn't have happened. But the man who made the U.S. Olympic team by a mere inch, the man who made it to the finals only by grabbing onto the last handrail on the last caboose, the oldest man in the field, won the gold with ancient legs, gray hair and a heart that stays forever young.
Carl Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world on Monday night at a rocking Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to win the gold medal in the long jump, becoming the only track and field athlete besides discus thrower Al Oerter to win four gold medals in a single event. It was his fourth and last Olympics, his ninth gold, his 10th medal and quite possibly his most impossible moment in an impossibly brilliant career.
And it all began so ordinarily. Lewis sat in third place behind Emmanuel Bangue of France and Mike Powell. Lewis had looked very mortal in his first two jumps, but something happened to him on his third, something you could see in his eyes. He veered right on his approach, but thumped the board and took off like he meant it. Lord, he stayed up forever. Looking down at it from the heavens, it must have been some sight, Lewis hanging up there like some David Copperfield trick, bathed in camera flashes, tens of thousands of them, so that Olympic Stadium looked like a bowl of stars, and the brightest was Lewis.
And now gravity remembered and he started to descend, stretching all those old bones and muscles and memories toward history. And as he came down, he actually looked down and to the right, to the huge meter markers set there for the crowd, to see how far he might go. And when he hit, he did not fall back, but sprang forward and then out of his favorite sandbox in all the world. When he saw his heel marks, saw how far he had gone, he collapsed to his knees and fell flat forward, as though he had taken a javelin in the back. When the scoreboard finally came up seconds later and read 27'10�"—his best jump at sea level in four years, since the Barcelona Olympics—Lewis looked stunned, and as he clutched his graying head, the crow's feet around his eyes stretched seamless, and those old legs bounced him around like a schoolboy.
The favorite and world-record holder, Powell, lurked in fourth place with two tries left. But on his fifth jump Powell fouled and, worse, strained his groin. Atlanta was his last chance to beat Lewis in an Olympics—he never had—and Powell could feel it slipping away. He had spent a lifetime sitting on track benches, waiting for Lewis to drop more hurt on him. He had lost to Lewis in Europe and Asia, lost to him from ahead and behind; he had lost to him for eight straight years at one point, and now it was happening again. When Powell tried to jog, to try a sixth jump, the pain was even worse, and he sat back down, weeping.
Yet he tried again, against all sense. As Powell sprinted down the runway, he grimaced, and as he leaped and rose, it seemed as if he tripped in midair, and he landed face first and writhed forward in pain. He lay there for minutes until finally rising, his dark body and face covered in sand and tears and regret.
"It's over," Powell said later in the dark reaches of the stadium, as Lewis took still another victory lap at his expense. "I can't believe it. I didn't win. I didn't get a chance to medal."
Lewis needed to witness only two more jumps to wrap up his preposterous achievement. The first was made by Bangue. But Bangue was a dud. And then came the other American, Jumping Joe Greene, who smiled at the situation, got the crowd clapping and then fouled.
Lewis first hugged Greene, who won the bronze (James Beckford of Jamaica was second), and then took his lap, holding not one American flag but two. He hugged Jesse Jackson on the way, and his sister, Carol, and then passed a huge banner that read, THANK YOU, CARL LEWIS.
You try to give the man a gold watch, and he steals your gold medal instead. You ask him to pass the torch, and he sets your Olympics on fire instead. "You've just seen a great performer at the end of his career," said Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez. "People thought he couldn't do it, but he did. He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen."