Carl Lewis: Overhaul everything

Track needs high profile

Olympic icon’s quest to lift track and field brings him to Houston meet

By FRAN BLINEBURY Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 17, 2009, 10:50AM

Dave Rossman For the Chronicle

Carl Lewis has been working to raise the profile of track and field and keep youths active in the sport.

Throughout a long a glorious career as perhaps the greatest American Olympian ever, Carl Lewis usually ran away from the pack.

But now, more than a decade after he retired as a sprinter and long jumper, Lewis is still tirelessly covering ground to raise the profile and burnish the image of track and field, the sport that made him famous all over the world.

While he still keeps a residence in Los Angeles, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist has been strengthening his ties with his boyhood home community in Willingboro, N.J., and will again host the Carl Lewis High School Indoor Invitational track meet today at the Yeoman Field House on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Houston.

More than 1,300 athletes from several hundred high schools are expected to take part in the meet.

“When I was first asked about doing this meet and putting my name on it, I said I would only do it if it was a high school meet,” Lewis said. “Because it’s those kids where we have the most work to do and the most opportunity to raise the consciousness of track and field in America.”

Track and field is still incredibly popular with the youngest age groups. It’s basic. But the sport is hemorrhaging youths — as athletes and fans — to football, basketball and other sports when they become teenagers.

Track and field is also suffering in an era when more kids tend to specialize in a single sport with one eye on the longshot possibility of a lucrative payday.

“I don’t blame the kids,” Lewis said. “I blame the parents. Two things that I don’t believe in are specialization and the idea that everybody wins. These parents that are trying to identify where ‘Johnny’ is great at such a young age are just trying to chase dollars for scholarships or careers.

“I say let kids take part in as many sports, try as many different things as they want. When I was 13, I was better at soccer than I was at running. So by today’s way of thinking, I never would have even tried track and field later on. Where would I be? I don’t think a professional soccer player.

Misguided philosophy
“And at the same time that parents are trying to get their kids to specialize in one sport, we’re into that ‘everybody wins’ philosophy. We don’t keep score. Nobody loses.

“What? Of course somebody loses. That’s part of the lesson of competition, and it should drive you.”

Watching the United States men’s and women’s 4x100-meter relay teams drop the baton in the preliminary round last summer at the Beijing Olympics infuriated the 47-year-old Lewis and drove him to

“I was furious at what happened, how it seems to happen to our relay teams so much at major competitions,” Lewis said. “And when I got in touch with Doug, he said, ‘Carl, I’m angrier than you are.’ That’s why he immediately said the program was going to have a complete overhaul. The reality is the sport is completely fractured. There is no guidance.”

Lewis, who never worried about speaking his mind and was outspoken during his career against drug cheats, believes that the track and field athletes are the ones most holding back the sport today.

Instead of running or jumping off to Europe or Asia for big paydays, he says they should be nurturing the sport at the grass-roots level in the United States and vigorously condemning drug cheats.

“Most of the athletes in America are delusional,” Lewis said laughing. “They’re living in a vacuum and pretending that everything is all right. A guy says, ‘I’m the fastest man in the world!’ Well, so what? There’s dozens of guys who are the last man on the bench in the NBA making 10 times your money. Do something to change that.

“Every time an athlete like Marion Jones does what she did, gets caught and sent to jail, more athletes need to be applauding. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for Marion.’ You stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to run on a relay team with anybody who has those allegations around them.’ Stand and say, ‘I only want to be a teammate of somebody who is tested and clean.’

“When I was in Beijing, I told some of those guys, ‘Look I still have endorsement deals with McDonald’s, Visa, Coca-Cola, worldwide brands, Olympic sponsors. They’re not doing business with most of you because they don’t trust you.’ ”

Following the domination by the Jamaican men’s and women’s sprint teams — led by Usain Bolt’s stunning world record runs in the 100 and 200 — Lewis caused a stir by wondering if all of the accomplishments were achieved legally.

“Look, I didn’t say anything that everybody else wasn’t thinking,” Lewis said. "Jamaica’s population is about the size of Philadelphia and suddenly they’re dominating the United States?

“Let’s be realistic,” Lewis said. “I said he (Bolt) could be the greatest of all time. But you are talking about a place that doesn’t have strict testing. For years, all of those Jamaicans used to come through America to train and there was nothing like this. Now they’ve stopped coming through America and they’re getting better by so much? It’s a question that should be asked.”

“And now what happens? The IAAF (the world governing body) says they’re going to start testing them rigorously. The point is not to take what anybody says or does at face value.”

Union needed
Lewis believes track and field athletes need a union, so that there can be one receiving house for grievances, one voice that speaks out on their behalf, one organization that mandates rules.

“It’s ridiculous now," he said. "They don’t even want to do victory laps these days. Well, I’m telling you, they better start doing something.

"These athletes are not getting 50 percent of the money in Europe that I got in my prime, and that was 20 years ago. BMX is getting better TV ratings. If the money dries up in Europe, there will be no track and field.”

Lewis wants to see American athletes spending more time training and being visible in America. He’d like to see an ‘adopt-a-club’ program, where world-ranked athletes become affiliated with youth track and field clubs, hold clinics, create bonds.

“You want those kids to know who the track and field athletes are, the way they know football and basketball players,” he said. “You create those bonds and then kids might follow those athletes. You might create fan.

"There’s some hope because I think Doug Logan, the new CEO ‘gets it.’ He wants the United States to compete at the highest level. But he also wants track and field to compete among sports.

“The most basic way we do that is at the grass-roots level. We have to create programs, nurture programs. We have to make this sport grow while we still have a sport.”

I don’t get it. Is it just me or does he sound very bitter about something?

I also question his statement about people getting paid more 20 years ago. How much would he have pulled in at a big European meet in the mid 80s before Ben became King for a couple years?

He and his group just about raped and plundered across Europe from 84-87 when he was still Olympic titleholder and the new Jesse Owens etc… a lot of meets ultimately collapsed in the early 1990s - more than 100 simply folded because Carl and SMTC upped the ante to such an extent that the whole ceiling was artificially raised and the smaller meets couldn’t cope, couldn’t get TV because TV followed the big guys etc etc…

Charlie would know much more and may establish a more correct timeline for the record.
But Carl was getting $100,000 per meet and then the SMTC guys tagged along and had to be also paid as part of the King Carl Travelling Show…

But I still think he was a phenomenal competitor, a champion among champions whatever his personality flaws…at least he was aware that the sports needs media, marketing and promotion…so he always had something to say even if it was mostly self-serving…

Thanks. I’m not questioning his ability - 4 Olympic Long Jump Titles in a row is pretty obscene, as is his 10-ish year winning streak in the same event.

most of the thoughts in the article seem pretty spot-on to me.

re - money in the 80’s. What was he supposed to do - demand less money? You have a finite number of years in track and field (at the top) with NO retirement plan like other pro sports. It’s your job (or your agent) to command what you can, if the meet directors don’t want to pay that’s their option as well.

A greed.

Seriously though, he deserved every cent of what he could get. He was No.1 and he was the face of the sport, de facto also the voice of the sport for several years and his fourth Olympic LJ title confirmed his position as one of the immortals of our sport.

But since you mention it, there was at least one season I recall when Carl wouldn’t lower his price and I think he may only have run two meets in Europe. So he kept to his standards and the market to theirs. Little Joe knew what he was doing and I grudgingly admired him for his tough stance. But, as I wrote, Carl’s dominance coincided (and was in some ways responsible as I’ve heard it from some promoters) for the collapse of the old circuit.

There was a time you could get a race somewhere in Europe literally every day from start of June through end of August - and you’d get paid something for it.

But then meets like Koblenz and Cologne collapsed and a host of satellite meets went under. Koblenz and Koln were great meets run by wonderful clubs … pity.
Koblenz, for those who don’t know it, is at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle rivers. The Red + White club hosted the meet at an elevated track overlooking the river. After the meet each year we’d all go by ferry down to the wine district and do our best… :o:p