Carl Lewis never crossed a finish line first in a final at the Seoul Olympics. He received his 100-meter gold by forfeit, with reruns of Ben Johnson's special-fuel-funny-car acceleration playing in his head. Lewis lost the 200-meter final to his training partner, Joe DeLoach. And he never got to anchor the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team because, with Lewis sitting out the first round of heats, the American team came unstuck at the last exchange and was disqualified.
Yet Lewis, who went home with two golds and a silver, pronounced this Olympic experience "tremendous." He had some statistical ammunition for his view, such as his American-record time of 9.92 in the 100, his near-personal best in the 200 of 19.79 and a winning long jump of 28' 7�". "Sure it was disappointing to see the gold go to the Soviets in the short relay," he said, "but my goals this time were ones of performance, not necessarily of victory."
At the Los Angeles Games, Lewis's priorities were the reverse. There he had sought victories in the four events—the 100, 200, 4 X 100 relay and long jump-in which Jesse Owens had been a winner in 1936, and he got them.
And there, having won, he struck many people as inhumanly good. Extremely observant, he seemed to be calculating. Trained in communications at the University of Houston, he seemed to put up screens of words. Folks sometimes sound as if they want a superman to represent them, but when one did, he didn't seem like folks. Now that will change. In Seoul, Lewis had a chance to be human in a way he never had in Los Angeles.
The first time he got that chance, he felt terrible. When Lewis realized Johnson would not be outraced, when he crossed the line looking into Johnson's glare, Lewis's be-happy-if-you-do-your-best resolve got its stiffest test. The race brought back memories of Rome in 1987, where Johnson ran a world-record 9.83 to beat Lewis, and rumors flew that Johnson was taking steroids. Jack Scott, a physiotherapist from Berkeley, Calif., who seemed ubiquitous in Seoul, treating athletes from several nations, recalled that in Rome "Carl's mother, Evelyn, actually said, 'Carl, why wouldn't you try those things?'
" 'Mom,' he said, 'I've got too much going for me in my life.' "
However, a few remarks by Lewis back then about the need to crack down on steroid users sounded like sour grapes. "People thought he was whining," says Scott. "But he deserves credit for his control, for holding back from saying what he was sure was true."
Lewis must have thought he had to live with the idea that Johnson was on something. Perhaps that was a factor in his decision to focus on performance rather than on victory in Seoul. Further, he knew Johnson could be beaten; Lewis had done it in a 100 in Zurich in August.
Seoul, therefore, was a blow. "Whatever he's on now, he wasn't on in Zurich," Lewis said quietly to a friend after the Olympic 100. But he kept the lid on his suspicions and pressed on with the 200 prelims and long jump. Early on Sept. 27, he learned that Johnson had tested positive for steroids. Lewis must have felt relief as well as sympathy for Johnson. Lewis later said he was happy for Calvin Smith, who would now receive the bronze. Yet, when pressed to offer public comment, he declined, even to NBC's Bryant Gumbel.
That evening he appeared with a group of athletes at a Lay Witnesses for Christ meeting at a church in Seoul. He spoke of a dream his mother had had the night before the 100 final. "My father [who died last year] came to her in her dream," he said. "He told her to make sure that I knew he was proud of me, and that whatever performance I made, don't worry about it. He said that everything would be all right. He said it again, everything would be all right.