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It was a lead of a yard. Lewis took the stick, switched it as he always does to his right hand and, as he accelerated, showed an eager smile. Then he became solemn, absorbed in his task. In straight sprint races, he may ease and wave at the tape. That is for himself. Anchoring relays, he is an extension of his teammates. He flew out to a five-yard lead, dipped at the line to get the last fraction off the total time and only then raised his arms.
Coasting to a stop, he glanced back at the scoreboard clock. "At first I thought it said 38.8," he said. "For a second I was disappointed. It didn't make sense." Then he looked closer. The time was 37.86, a world record,. 17 from the previous mark of 38.03 run by the U.S. World Cup team in 1977.
The first teammate Lewis saw was Grimes. He promptly leaped about four feet into his arms, and there ensued the celebration of the meet, with jumpers and sprinters all embracing.
Lewis' last 100 meters, as discovered from timing videotapes, was 8.9 seconds. There is no evidence that any man has ever run faster. Certainly Jesse Owens never did. Only Bob Hayes's anchor in the Tokyo Olympics was comparable in his dominance of the world's best, but Lewis faced a better man in Mennea, who brought Italy in with a national-record 38.37, and beat him by more.
So it is time that Lewis' popular sobriquet, "The best American athlete since Jesse Owens," be retired. Among sprinters, and surely soon among jumpers, he is the best, ever.
Bill Lewis, watching the dancing athletes, hearing the sustained, awed chorus of the standing ovation for his son, rubbed his wife Evelyn's shoulders—"Aching from the excitement," she said—and allowed that records were great, three gold medals were splendid. "But beyond all that, I'll tell you this. I've never seen him happier."
Later, Lewis listed the levels of his joy. "This feels even better than the triple [the 100, 200 and long jump] at the TAC meet because, one, it's the Worlds, two, it ended with a world record and not a miss, and three, it reaffirms American sprint dominance. It's just so much more deeply satisfying to have something like this come as a result of depending on each other and coming through."
He was further boosted by the one-two finish of Smith (20.14) and Rutgers junior Elliott Quow (20.41) in the 200. Mennea was third in 20.51.
Lewis, labeled Superman by L'Équipe, the French sports daily, was the toast of Helsinki all week. When Smith was asked if it bothered him that reporters seemed almost as interested in why Lewis had not run the 200 (he feared injury) as they were in Smith's victory, he said, "Hey, the more publicity and pressure that Carl gets put on him, the less for me, and I like that fine. The Lord gets the credit for all of us anyway."
The only athlete in Helsinki who matched Lewis at inspiring an awed hush was 32-year-old Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia. She seems the picture of everybody's shy fifth-grade teacher, until she takes off her sweats. Then she displays a torso by Rodin. On Tuesday she took them off twice within 35 minutes, to win a semifinal of the 400 in 51.08, and then to commence the final of the 800, her sixth race in three days. No woman has ever won the 400-800 double in Olympic competition. Only Alberto Juantorena has among men.