Carl Lewis Q&A USAToday

Carl Lewis takes on several roles, discusses state of track

By Chelsea Janes, USA TODAY
Carl Lewis is considered one of the USA’s greatest track and field athletes of all time. The winner of nine Olympic gold medals, Lewis joins Al Oerter as the only athletes to win four golds in the same event (long jump, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996).

USA TODAY’s Chelsea Janes caught up with Lewis, 50, as he prepares for this weekend’s Hershey’s Track & Field Games in Hershey, Pa., where he is a spokesperson.

Now that you’re well removed from your career, how do you feel looking back at it?

I’m so fortunate to have done what I love to do for so long, but the day I retired was one of the best days of my life. Not because I was happy to get away from the sport, but because it was clear in my mind that I had done all I possibly could, and that it was time to go.

What are you up to nowadays?

Well, first of all, I started my own foundation — the Carl Lewis Foundation — which works with kids with disabilities. I’m a U.N. (United Nations) ambassador, and I’m also now running for state senate of New Jersey.

And then a relationship with Hershey’s and the Hershey’s Games. And those games are so real, it’s so emotional. These kids get here, maybe their first time on a plane, and they go to chocolate world, so they become friends. They go out, they want kill each other. Some cry losing, some win, but they’re all friends right after. It’s just so real. And stuff like that is what made me want to find other ways to keep helping out.

How did you get into the political side of things? Walk me through your decision to run for the senate.

The interesting thing is that we really jumped into it, but I don’t look at it as politics. I see it as an extension of the public service I’ve been doing with the U.N. and Hershey’s Games, and just all these issues that we’ve been looking at.

All the things we’re focusing on in New Jersey are things I deal with every day. We’re talking about funding for kids with intellectual disabilities being cut in New Jersey. Schools are affected, and both of my parents were teachers… so pension issues.

I’m also coaching in high school, so I’m trying to motivate kids to be the best they can be as athletes and as students, but it’s hard when things are moving in certain directions.

For me, a U.N. ambassador and nine-time gold medalist, I realize that that’s going to be my legacy, not this. But if I can understand that and keep that focus and think, “What can I do to make people’s lives better?”

I know there are a lot of people out there who have the best intentions but not the voice, so it’s about people like me to give them a voice and hear their ideas.

What has changed in track and field since you were a part of things?

I think the biggest change is that in the '80s and into the '90s — the group I came along with — we were amateurs acting like professionals. Now, we have professionals acting like amateurs, and that’s the huge difference.

Anyone following the sport realizes that the athletes need to take more steps to control their career. At the end of the day, if you’re a professional athlete in track and field you are the CEO of your company. Right now, managers and others are trying to run their companies; I can’t imagine if the CEO of a major corporation was letting the unions or suppliers tell him what to do. That’s what’s happening right now; the athletes aren’t running the show. So I think what the athletes have to realize is that if they’re going to be professionals, they have to act like that and run their business and learn from others. .

As all the other sports get bigger and better, it kind of gets beat. … The issue is there because of structure. That was the problem when I was competing, and the sport just doesn’t have the exposure because there’s so much more competition. I hope that we can figure out a way to change the structure to make the sport more successful.

What has to happen for track and field to regain the stature it had when you were competing?

Honestly, I love the athletes, I think they have the best intentions, but I just don’t see it going back. And that’s not because of the sport only. It’s a different time. Let’s be real; you have 10 times more competition.

What we did at the time, we all came up together and we kept the momentum going. Once the momentum’s gone, you’re done.

By the time they got the momentum back, there were other sports out there. Like the X Games, or even poker. You’re going to tell me that track and field can catch poker in popularity? It’s just not going to happen. We dropped the ball and by the time we got the ball back, everyone else was all the way down the court, and that’s the frustrating part about it.

What are you looking for from the U.S. now that we’re about a year away from London?

I think the U.S. is going to have a solid team there. I’m expecting that they will be good, that people will come up you’ve never heard of and will have success, some you’ll expect to win and make the finals.

I think Team USA needs to focus on the basics: make sure that you pass the baton and go through the line and simple stuff like that. That will make a difference.

The Olympics are always going to be great. The United States is going to do well, because they always do. And I’ll root for them. People ask me all the time, ‘What do you think of this athlete?’ But I have USA on my chest and that’s who I’m rooting for, and I’m not shy about telling people that.

Some of it is frustrating. The long jump now? 27-feet medals all the time, that’s a little frustrating. Overall, I think we’ll do well.

Why do you think those numbers have gone backwards when education and training are so much more advanced these days?

I know why. It’s coaching. When I came up, most of the coaches were teachers who became coaches and trained to be coaches and had a background as a coach and wanted to be coaches and worked at it. Now most of these coaches are athletes who retired and bam, I’m a coach next year.

Where’s your background, where’s the biomechanics, where’s the knowledge? And the coaching clinics are being run by a lot of the new people who don’t have knowledge in the first place.

I don’t feel I’m qualified to be a coach outside the high school level. I think I would need to do more education to really be a good coach. And yet we have people who retire, and the next year are a coach.

What athletes on this particular U.S. team really stick out?

I would say the one I’m closest to and rooting for the most is Sanya Richards. I think she has a great shot at it. I know she gets it. She gets the whole business part and the sport and training. I really admire her.

Say what you want about Carl but he makes some great points. The coaches as teachers is spot on.

Seeing Tom Tellez this year at the Canadian Sprint Conference, I was super impressed at how EASY he made everything sound. Not only that, Carl stayed with him his entire career- I sure would like to know how he managed that relationship so successfully. It’s interesting to hear what Carl says about being unqualified to coach outside the high school level.

It’s funny that he places all the blame at the foot of coaching being responsible for shorter jumps, yet when someone breaks a world record in a sprint event he’s the first one to shoot his mouth off, and oddly enough it’s not to compliment the coach, a guy who has been around long enough to coach one of his competitors in the 1988 final.