Michael Johnson flew around the track, shoulders thrown so far back that his race seemed a miracle more of posture than of speed. There was plenty of that, though, and by the time his pretty gold shoes had come to rest he had won the 400-meter race in Olympic record time, nearly a full second ahead of the field. It was a nice opener to his double dare, an attempt for unprecedented wins in both the 400 and 200.
Yet, to Johnson's frustration, the night wasn't his. Worse, the sport of track and field, which he has seemed to dominate lately, was not deeded to him following his triumph. No matter what Johnson did, the next day's headlines were going to be about King Carl, the stories all about a 35-year-old guy and his fourth gold medal in the long jump, an antique who simply refuses to be led off the world stage.
Before Johnson, 28, had even curled into his blocks, Carl Lewis had pretty much wrapped up his event, the only one he can truly compete in any more, with a leap of 27'10¾". It was well off his personal best, well off a record, and it came against a field that was not exactly the strongest ever assembled. But to see him sail over the sand on that jump, his feet clawing the air, was to realize at once that magic had been made. It was a jump that would not be beaten, just as Lewis who had struggled to qualify for these finals was an athlete who would not lose.
And yet his feat seemed difficult for others to acknowledge, tense relationships forged in countless competitions making it impossible for rivals to celebrate his majestic career. The event's world-record holder, Mike Powell, strained a groin muscle on one jump and then writhed dramatically in the pit on his next. He still couldn't allow any glory to go Lewis's way. Asked about Lewis, who had just won his ninth gold medal since 1984, Powell paused to collect his thoughts and just walked away.
Several athletes of lesser reputation seemed to understand what Lewis had done. "You think of Jesse Owens," said long jump bronze medalist Joe Greene, "you think of Carl Lewis." But others could not bring themselves to congratulate him. "As far as Carl trying to be the premier athlete in track and field," said Johnson, "I think he should step down from there."
Throughout his long career Lewis has been an unabashed self-promoter, bringing himself more wealth than popularity. But he has always delivered the goods, made those jumps when he had to. Anybody who doesn't appreciate that needs to think about what he'll have in his closet when he's 35—gold shoes or gold medals.