It is time Carl Lewis grew up.
Long past time. About 25 years. When his three gold medals in the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki 1983 announced to the world a superior talent, and signalled his potential to emulate Jesse Owens, 1936 vintage, and take four gold medals in the Olympics in Los Angeles the following year, Lewis could also have begun to show the world a maturity that would have enhanced his career and reputation immeasurably, and made him a figure to esteem not just in the world of track and field athletics, but in the wider world beyond. And what did we get? Sure enough, an unparallelled career, with nine Olympic and eight world champs golds.
But we also got a world champion whiner!
Let’s get one thing straight from the offset. Lewis is one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever seen. And I was one of the mainstays of the circuit throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and in tandem with the scintillating sprinting, I lost count of the number of times he pulled out a winning leap on his final jump, contributing to a 65 win streak over ten years, one of the longest in the annals of the sport. Of course, he may have been kidding us, as Daley Thompson once admitted in an autobiography, taking less than full effort in early rounds, to force himself to concentrate on the final attempt. Nevertheless, it worked. It was great theatre as well as great competition. And only added to the legend of a man who won four successive Olympic long jump titles, another record.
Of course, no one says that you have to be a nice guy as well as a great champion. Just as well! Because Lewis’s mean-streak is every bit as impressive as his winning streak.
There is no better example of how vicious Lewis can be than his autobiography, Inside Track, written with Jeffrey Marx. What should have been a celebration of one of the most illustrious careers in the sport reads more like a long revenge letter. Anyone perceived to have slighted Lewis in any way during his lengthy career is demeaned and criticised to an extent which is obscene. The worst example is with Larry Myricks, the last person to beat Lewis prior to his ten-year streak. Myricks is repeatedly referred to as a choker, and when he fails in the world championships, he is called a ‘world champion choker’. It is petty and mean, and does immense discredit to Lewis, like much of the rest of the book, which suggests an extreme narcissist, someone who cannot see beyond himself.
And, judging by his ill-advised comments on Usain Bolt in a Sports Illustrated online interview last week, he hasn’t changed over a decade later. A decade in which he has deliberately distanced himself from the sport. Yet he’s like those stars who become TV or radio commentators. At first, they have a hard time being objective, tempted as they are to compare everyone poorly to themselves. They gradually grow out of it. Lewis, it seems hasn’t managed that yet.
Of course, Lewis has a point when he ennumerates all those sprinters who succeeded him, who later tested positive. But those comments, and his aspersions on the hitherto unblemished Bolt – a youngster with quite as much talent as Lewis – would be more acceptable if Lewis’s levels of denial didn’t stretch to his own drugs positive. To which his only response seems to be that people still remember him, so that’s OK. Huh? He used that reply (excuse) in the wake of Wade Exum’s revelations five years ago of his positive in 1988, a positive swept under the carpet by the US authorities he is now vaunting for their anti-drugs hardline. He repeated that excuse in an interview with BBC World Service Radio two years ago, and he trotted it out again in his SI interview last week.
That circuit in the 1980s, incidentally – Lewis’ heyday – was a great time to be around athletics. The sport was finding its way in the professional era, and the public was eager to see stars like Lewis, Grete Waitz, Ed Moses, Mary Decker, Seb Coe, Ingrid Kristiansen, Steve Ovett, Zola Budd, Sergei Bubka, Eveleyn Ashford, Saïd Aouita, and dozens of others who lit up the tracks of Europe, with occasional forays to Eugene, San Jose, UCLA, and further afield.
There were some great characters, apart from the athletes, around too. I recall spending a post-meet evening in Koblenz, on the Rhine, listening to the Toms, Sturak and Jennings, and Pete Petersens, talking about the track scene in the US. One of the things that sticks out, and they all agreed, is what a nice kid Carl Lewis was as a teenager – polite, courteous, concerned, a credit to his parents, whom everybody loved.
There were various reasons discussed as to why he had changed and become the prima-donna we know now, but the principal one was ‘Little Joe’, ie Joe Douglas, his long-time manager. I forget which one of the aforementioned trio said it, but there seemed to be general assent, “It all changed when Little Joe laid all that ‘King Carl’ crap on him. The worst thing was, Carl bought into it”.
That crown tarnishes more with every self-obsessed, ill-judged comment he makes.