Carl Lewis

An old article from Sports Illustrated 15 Apr 1996: Vol. 84 Issue 15. p. 84



I’M STANDING at the finish line for the men’s invitational 100 meters at the Texas Relays last Saturday in Austin. Announcer Bill Melton is introducing the starters in the race, saving the most famous of them for last, at which point he turns into ring announcer Michael Buffer, minus the spiffy tux and that Let’s get ready to rummm-ble! shtick. Melton takes 78 seconds to list every achievement of Carl Lewis’s 18-year international career except the time he posed for a billboard in those kinky high heels.

I’m standing there in the cool sunshine, looking down the track at the 34-year-old Lewis in his shimmering yellow uniform, and I’m thinking, This isn’t an introduction, it’s a eulogy. It’s not a race, it’s a farewell tour. Somebody give this man a set of golf clubs and walk him off the track, please.

It seems this way mostly because the last time Lewis ran in a significant meet–in the 60 meters at the U.S. Indoor Championships on March 2–he was jaw-droppingly bad, finishing dead last in a morning heat. Not a final. Not a semi. A heat. Last. It wasn’t as embarrassing as Willie Mays with the New York Mets or Joe Namath with the Los Angeles Rams, but for anyone who had taken pleasure in the pure athletic beauty of Carl Lewis running fast in his prime, it was mighty sad. Olympic 100-meter champion Linford Christie of England, who had himself just turned 36, watched that race on television. “Didn’t show well,” was his cold analysis. “I’d never write Carl off, but he should be able to run faster than he did without training a day.”

That performance followed a 1995 outdoor season in which Lewis finished sixth in the 100 meters and second in the long jump at the U.S. nationals, and didn’t compete at the world championships, scratching from the only individual event in which he had qualified (the long jump) with an injured hamstring. The process was evident: a man getting older and slower. We have seen it many times. Lewis only seemed to make it worse by denying the obvious. He boldly petitioned for a change in the Atlanta Olympic schedule that would allow him to compete in the 100 and 200 meters and the long jump, presumably so that he could attempt to duplicate his four-gold-medal performance of 12 years ago in Los Angeles, which also included the 4x100-meter relay. Although he was granted that schedule change, it was far from certain that Lewis would make the U.S. team in any of the three events, and he seemed likely not to make it in either sprint.

But then on Saturday afternoon a remarkable thing happened. After the introduction–Lewis called it “embarrassing”–he swallowed up Jon Drummond, the top-ranked U.S. sprinter last year, 20 meters from the finish and won the race in a wind-aided 10.10 seconds. “My top-end speed was there,” Lewis said, “and it’s been a long time since I could say that. I mean years.” He paused, smiled knowingly, and added, “There’s been some doubt lately.”

Lewis is the greatest athlete in U.S. track and field history. End of discussion. In three Olympics he has won nine medals, eight of them gold. And yet history is oddly apathetic toward him. His quadruple gold in 1984 (matching Jesse Owens’s feat of '36) was derided for its accompanying self-promotion. Lewis was booed in the Los Angeles Coliseum for not taking all of his jumps en route to winning the long jump, which he said he did because the unnecessary jumps would have tired him for the 200. In victory he somehow became a villain. Four years later in Seoul he got the gold in the 100 only because Ben Johnson was disqualified for using steroids. For Lewis there was always a catch. Only when he anchored the U.S. to an Olympic and world record in the 4x100-meter relay in Barcelona in 1992 did he seem fully exultant. But most of his victories have been dampened by expectation or misunderstanding. It seems as though he has seldom been truly free to celebrate or to be celebrated, and that is a shame.

This, then, is his chance. These coming Olympics have already been given over to Michael Johnson, a huge talent who will attempt to win gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters, an unprecedented double. Few are watching Lewis, except in occasional pity. He is now in that most cherished position: He is an underdog. He is George Foreman without the flab.

A windy 10.10 won’t win a gold medal (Lewis’s best is a legal 9.86, run in 1991). Maybe it wouldn’t even put Lewis on the U.S. team. But to hell with that. It was the old Carl Lewis on Saturday, slicing the air with his hands, seeming to accelerate at 70 meters when physiology demands that he must slow down, bringing a guttural roar from the crowd and then bursting into celebration at the finish. There is something left. And if it is enough to carry him to Atlanta and to put him on the podium, then that would be a moment to cherish, to leave a sweet taste in the mouth. Finally. For him. For the rest of us, too.

An old article from Sports Illustrated 8 May 1995: Vol. 82 Issue 18. p. 56


Even in his prime, Carl Lewis was never much of a starter. Whether coming out of the blocks or emerging from the cocoon of diversions he wraps around himself each winter (reporting for radio shows, taking acting lessons, penning his autobiography) Lewis has always taken a little longer than other sprinters to reach full speed. Not that it has mattered. At the only end of the track that counts – the finish – Lewis has proved himself to be the greatest track and field athlete of all time, the greatest sprinter, the greatest jumper. No one else is even close.

What, then, are we to make of Lewis’s 1995 season? He will turn 34 on July 1. When the end of his career does come, as it soon must, it may resemble this past month. On April 8 Lewis ran an impressive-sounding 9.94 at the Texas Relays, but the race was wind aided and he finished third. On April 15 Lewis won the long jump at the Mount SAC Relays, but his leap of 26 8-1/4" was his shortest winning distance in 14 years. Last Friday afternoon, at the Drake Relays, Lewis lost again, this time to a 19-year-old UTEP sophomore named Obadele Thompson and an Oregon freshman named Patrick Johnson. I was looking for his usual finish,'' said Thompson afterward, but it wasn’t there.’’

Lewis’s time of 10.32 left him more than a meter behind Thompson’s 10.19. ``I just didn’t feel sharp,’’ Lewis said, sounding less confident than usual.

As Lewis explains it, the big difference this year is not physical but mental. When you've been to 14 Mount SAC Relays or 13 of this meet or 11 of this, you don't approach it the same way,'' he said before Drake. I have a difficult time getting focused for some of the meets I’ve been to so many times. But the one thing I’ve kept is my enthusiasm for training and for major meets.’’

So Lewis’s first true test will come in June, at the national championships in Sacramento, where he hopes to make the U.S. team for this summer’s world championships in Goteborg, Sweden. Those who know Lewis best insist that physically he is as good as ever. ``I don’t see anything in practice that he can’t do now that he did before,’’ says Tom Tellez, who has been coaching Lewis for 16 years.

If there is a sign that Lewis is feeling his age, it is that he started working out later this year than usual, in early January. He was just beat,'' Tellez says. He took time off to get himself rejuvenated. But I think he looks better in practice than he has in a long time. It’s just a matter of getting up for meets.’’

In some quarters Lewis has already been written off. Olympic champion Linford Christie pointed out last summer that it had been three years since Lewis broke 10 seconds without an aiding wind. Last year’s top sprinter, Dennis Mitchell, told the Chicago Tribune last summer, ``Right now, all the other sprinters in the world aren’t worried about Carl at all.’’

Maintenance has always figured in Lewis’s calculations. He has absorbed in his blood and his bones the paradox that Tellez teaches – that you run fast by relaxing and maintaining speed, not by trying to accelerate to the finish. Relax and maintain. That’s the essence of sprinting. It is also the essence of hanging in for the long run.

We know how Carl Lewis starts. Now, how will he finish?


Never before have so many run so fast In the end, Carl Lewis proved he’s still King of the 100.

It’s easy to understand the universal appeal of track and field–why the sport is the cornerstone of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza, the Summer Olympic Games. A single word explains it: simplicity.

Track and field is based on elementary human movements–throwing, jumping, running. Of the three, running is the purest. The competitors, nearly naked (and on a few noteworthy occasions, even running without shoes), race each other over an established distance. They start, they run, they strain to reach the finish line. How much simpler can things get?

As fans, we naturally find ourselves drawn to the two extremes of running: the marathon and the 100 meters. Each represents the outer edge. The marathon requires raw endurance, the 100 meters raw speed.

Because there is nothing wishy-washy about the marathon or the 100, we feel more satisfied watching runners challenge these two distances than any others. These are athletes tilting at the farthest realms of running. These are races full of impossible dreams.

In the modern history of track and field, which Italian track historian Roberto Quercetani dates to a competition at Eton College, England, in 1837, the greatest footrace ever run over any distance took place on Sunday evening, August 25, in the Tokyo National Stadium at the 1991 World Championships meet.

It is 7:05 P.M. Tokyo time. The sun has set 45 minutes earlier. The stadium, warm and still, brims with 60,000 spectators, including the Emperor and Empress (attending their first-ever sports even0, the world’s best and widest sumo wrestlers and Ben Johnson, once the fastest man alive.

At the north end of the stadium, the world’s eight best sprinters prepare for the 100-meter final. They stretch their long and powerful hamstrings, lick their lips in nervous anticipation, back their way into the starting blocks, flick the last kinks out of their calves and carefully place their hands just behind the start line. Then, at last, they look up. They stare down the long, narrow lane in front of them.

At the end of the lane, they see the finish line. And above it, a surprise. A full moon is breaking over the stadium, the most fabled and portentous moon, capable of influencing the tides of oceans…and of men.

At the starter’s gun, Dennis Mitchell moves so quickly that a mild controversy later ensues. International track rules require that starting blocks be wired to a “false start apparatus for the assistance of the starter.” If a sprinter reacts to the start gun in less than .100 seconds, the apparatus signals the start official, who may or may not decide that a false start has occurred. He can call the runners back and ask them to begin again.

Mitchell explodes off the blocks in .090 seconds. The electronics sound an alarm, but the starter decides no violation has taken place. The race is on!

Mitchell bolts down lane six fast but not cleanly. “A step and a half out, I stumbled,” he says later. “That made me wake up. The rest of the race, I concentrated on going through every zone faster than I ever had before.” He reaches the end of the first 20 meters in first place, in a blurringly fast 2.87 seconds.

To his left, in lane five, Carl Lewis is focusing on the weakest, and therefore most important, part of his race. He had arrived in Tokyo early to spend a week practicing start drills. “I knew what I had to do,” he said after his first heat. “It’s a mechanical thing. I wasn’t really driving from the blocks before. I was coming up too quickly.”

Despite the special attention and his best starting efforts, Lewis is simply too long-legged to match the others out of the blocks. He has already fallen behind. At 20 meters, he’s in seventh place–next to last. His split time, 2.96 seconds, is identical to his 20-meter split in the 1987 Rome World Championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. If Lewis is to perform better than in those two races (9.93 and 9.92), he won’t achieve it through improved technique. He’ll simply have to run faster than he ever has run before. This doesn’t seem likely. At 30, he’s practically the Methuselah of sprinters.

Two lanes farther to the left, Leroy Burrell has “drilled” (Carl’s word) Lewis with his muscular start, just as he did two months earlier in running his 9.90 world record at the Mobil/TAC meet in New York. Burrell trails only Mitchell and Jamaica’s Ray Stewart and hasn’t yet reached his full, crunching overdrive. His power brings to mind Bob Hayes, who set a world 100-meter record, 10.0 seconds, in this very stadium in the 1964 Olympic Games.


  1. Dennis Mitchell: 2.87
  2. Leroy Burrell: 2.89
  3. Carl Lewis: 2.96

You wouldn’t imagine that sprinters spend much time thinking about their races. After all, the 100 meters is over in 10 seconds. What’s to think about?

A lot. Perhaps because the distance is so short, sprinters spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. They know they won’t have time to correct their mistakes after the start. They have to work out every detail beforehand: how to harness every fiber of brute force into such a compressed period, how to remain taut yet relaxed. In the race itself, the best they can hope is to react like a perfect animal. There’s no time to make up for any physical or mental lapses.

Mitchell, with a personal best of 9.99 in the semifinal, has mentally prepared himself to do what no one thinks possible: beat Burrell and Lewis. “I run the race many times in my head before we got out there,” he says. “I didn’t want my body to have to face anything new. I told it, you’ve got to be able to run 9.90.”

Since setting his world record, Burrell has been dealing well with the pressures of the worldwide spotlight. He’s a bright, personable, outgoing 23-year-old who seems to revel in the media attention. But Burrell also faces another, more basic form of pressure. The burning question: Can he run faster than Carl Lewis again? “The race is 95 percent mental,” he explains. “You might have some doubts, but you have to stop yourself from thinking negatively or you’ll have a negative performance.”

Rather than letting the competition come between them, Burrell and Lewis have used it to their mutual advantage. Theirs is a model sports friendship, rare among athletes of any kind, virtually unique among sprinters.

Daily training partners at the University of Houston as well as teammates on the Santa Monica Track Club, Burrell and Lewis have spent hours talking about the Tokyo 100-meter final. They have long agreed that it would probably take a world record, a sub-9.90, to win. But which of them will run the 9.8? “The 100 meters is a test of nerves,” Burrell says. “Whoever has the strongest nerves will get there first.” At 30 meters Burrell catches Mitchell, though both now trail Stewart by .01.

When Lewis found himself facing knee surgery 10 months earlier, he suffered a period of soul-searching. He asked himself: Do you still think you can run and jump better than ever? And, more tellingly: Are you still having fun? To both questions he eventually answered, yes.

“When the jury came in–no pun intended,” he says in Tokyo, referring obliquely to his acquittal last winter on drunk-driving charges, “I realized track and field is what I enjoy most. I’m lucky to have a lot of young guys around [his training partners] to give me energy and a youthful outlook. Sure, I sometimes have to sleep a little later than they do, but I hang in there pretty well.”

Lewis needs the energy now. Mitchell and Burrell have pulled .09 seconds ahead of him. In a 100-meter sprint, where .01 seconds is the currency of victories, this is a gigantic gap. Experience is the only thing that can save him; he has been behind before. “Mentally, the most important thing a sprinter can do is run his own race,” Lewis says. “I concentrated on what the coaches told me: to work my arms and to stay loose.”

Inevitably, another thought also crowds into Lewis’s consciousness, one that has lodged there for three years. He knows Ben Johnson is watching this race from the stands. On steroids in Rome and Seoul, Johnson had cheated Lewis of the one thing that means most to a champion: the brief but glorious and four moment when you cross the line ahead of the pack. Sure, the judges can later disqualify someone for illegal drugs or tactics, but they can never give you back that moment. (Remember Jacqueline Gareau, cheated of her 1980 Boston Marathon moment by Rosie Ruiz?)

“The last time, drugs beat me,” Lewis tells himself as he straightens up to his full 6’ 2" height and digs for more speed. “This time everyone’s clean. And I’m simply going to run the best I can in my own lane and not worry about anyone else.”


  1. (tie) Dennis Mitchell and Leroy Burrell: 4.68
  2. Carl Lewis: 4.77

For the jackrabbit starters like Mitchell, sprinting has a certain inevitable quality to it. The really fast guys–the Burrells and Lewises–almost always catch you. The most you can do is to stretch your early advantage as far as possible, to see if someday you can stretch it all the way to the finish.

“I like to get what I can get early and then just hang on,” Mitchell says. “I was hoping to get far enough ahead of Carl that he couldn’t catch me.” As usual, the plan begins to unravel about midrace. Burtell steams past Mitchell. Lewis begins closing fast. “I just couldn’t get far enough ahead,” Mitchell sighs.

As a kid, Leroy Burrell dreamed of achieving stardom in baseball. “I only had a couple of problems,” he says. “I couldn’t catch, and I couldn’t hit.” The team manager used him as a pinch base runner, then suggested he pay a visit to the track coach. Burrell acquiesced. It proved a wise choice.

Favored by many to win the World Champs, Burrell looked ragged in the early heats. (Each 100-meter man had to run three qualifying races before reaching the final.) “I was nervous and anxious–not the athlete I wanted to be,” Burrell said. “I had to go home and reconstruct.”

And keep dialing a hospital room in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, where his father was undergoing open-heart surgery. Finally, on Sunday morning, he got through to his dad, who had just been released from intensive care. “Once I heard his voice, my spirits began to rise,” Burrell said. “I told myself, Dad’s okay, I’m okay. I felt happy again.” At 60 meters, he bursts past Mitchell and shares the lead with Stewart.

Carl Lewis is now running faster than anyone else in the race, though it barely shows. He’s still mired far back, in fifth place, well behind Burrell, who has beaten him in five of their last six races. Earlier in the afternoon, the two had spent an hour or two together, Carl visiting Leroy’s room. They chatted about music, the upcoming race (“We motivate each other,” Lewis says.) and their fathers.

Lewis’s father died in May 1987, and the son has never forgotten his first: coach. At the funeral, Carl pressed one of his Los Angeles gold medals into his father’s hand. On the night of the Tokyo final, when Lewis spots a full and brilliant moon, his first thought is: great. No clouds in the sky. Dad can see through the darkness.

The situation on the track is less clear, but as ,he passes 50 meters, Lewis begins to find reason for hope. “I may have been fifth at 50, but I felt great,” he says. “At 60 meters I wasn’t feeling confident I could win, but I knew I had a shot at it.” He simply needs to run the last 40 meters faster than he has ever run.


  1. Leroy Burrell: 6.41
  2. Dennis Mitchell: 6.42
  3. Carl Lewis: 6.46

In fact, it doesn’t take Lewis 40 meters to win this race. He does it, astonishingly, in 20. Running now at his full, uncoiled stride, which makes him not just the fastest runner ever but the most fluid as well, Lewis races from 60 to 80 meters in 1.67 seconds. If he could cover the full distance at this speed, he’d run an 8.35.

Faced with the biggest challenge of his life, Lewis has responded with the fastest running. Still, he’s not in the lead, and he won’t let up until he crosses the finish line. “At 80 meters I felt good, and I thought I had a great chance at winning” is all that hell allow.

Burrell, legally blind in his right eye, can’t actually see Lewis coming, but he trains with Carl every day and knows what to expect. Later, after he’s watched videotapes of the race, Burrell is asked what makes Lewis so unmatchably fast.

“It’s those knees,” he answers without hesitation. “His knees come up so high it’s ridiculous. I can’t do that. Carl can maintain speed really, really well. He’s able to respond where others can’t.” Burrell leads by a fraction of a second, but Lewis has the momentum.

One-hundred-meter sprinters generally reach top speed somewhere between 60 and 80 meters and then, as their muscles concede to the lockjaw of anaerobic metabolism, straggle to stave off deceleration. This is roughly the equivalent of marathoners hitting The Wall at 20 miles.

Burrell, for example, runs his best 10-meter split, .84 seconds, between 70 and 80 meters. His last two splits will be .89 and .87. He slows down at the end, as does every other sprinter.

Lewis’s gift–the talent that enables him to overcome his mediocre start–is his ability to resist deceleration. He stays loose and fast where other sprinters begin to tighten up. “Carl just seems to take a deep breath, to relax his jaw, to relax everything else and to carry his momentum across the finish line,” observes Burrell.


  1. Leroy Burrell: 8.12
  2. Carl Lewis: 8.13
  3. Dennis Mitchell: 8.14

At 90 meters a smile creases Carl Lewis’s face for the first time. “I was really rolling,” he says later. “And when I had cleared everybody but Leroy, I thought, hey, I can win this. But first I had to find out where Leroy was.”

Burrell is now .01 seconds behind Lewis. Although he can’t see Lewis out of his blind fight eye, he senses the presence of another runner, and he realizes it has to be Carl. “I was thinking, oh, gosh, he’s close,” Burrell says. “I thought I might be able to maintain.”

When he hits the 95-meter mark, Lewis looks to his left and sees that he has surged ahead of Burrell. “He passed us like we were standing still,” Burrell says. Two strides later, Lewis thrusts both arms skyward and leans into the finish line. After flashing a moment of exhilaration, his face deepens to a more profound joy, nearly to disbelief, nearly to tears. He wraps his hands around his head, buries his face in his forearms and searches out Burrell and Mitchell to envelope them.

“My emotion at the finish is hard to explain,” he says. “My achievement tonight couldn’t have happened without the help of so many people–my coaches, my teammates, my family.”

With his world record 9.86 clocking, Lewis has run the first legal 100 meters in under 9.90 seconds. Burrell has improved his personal best to 9.88. Mitchell has run a personal best, 9.91. England’s Linford Christie has run a personal best and European record, 9.92, and promptly announces his retirement. Frank Fredericks, a BYU student, has run a personal best, Namibian national record and African best, 9.95. Ray Stewart has recorded a personal and Jamaican best, 9.96.

In all, six runners have broken 10.0 seconds. The greatest number under 10 in any previous race was three. Bruny Surin, of Canada, runs 10.14, which would have been worth a silver medal in the inaugural 1983 Championships…and finishes last.

Lewis adds the 100-meter title to the long list of championships titles he already possesses: Helsinki, Los Angeles, Rome, Seoul and now Tokyo. No other runner has won gold medals in all these World Championships and Olympics. “The cream of the crop always rises at the big meets,” says Burrell, “and tonight we saw the cream rise.”

Mitchell puts Lewis in a larger context: “Carl proved tonight what he proves every time he gets into the blocks, every time he steps onto a long-jump runway, every time he steps onto the track for a relay race–that he’s the greatest track athlete ever.”


  1. Carl Lewis: 9.86
  2. Leroy Burrell: 9.88
  3. Dennis Mitchell: 9.91

PHOTO (COLOR): They’re off! Dennis Mitchell (second from left), Ray Stewart (fourth from Jeff) and Leroy Burrell (fifth from left) explode from the starting blocks. Carl Lewis (third from left) is taller than the others and takes longer to reach top speed, but already he’s driving hard his long arms.

PHOTO (COLOR): A blur of speed: Now out of the blocks and running tall after 40 meters, every sprinter in the field is pushing to reach top speed.

PHOTO (COLOR): Still the fastest man alive: Carl Lewis flashes across the finish line in a new world record 9.86 seconds.

PHOTO (COLOR): All for one and one for all: Burrell (1104) and Mitchell (on right) congratulate an emotional Lewis after their historic race.



It wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t have happened. But the man who made the U.S. Olympic team by a mere inch, the man who made it to the finals only by grabbing onto the last handrail on the last caboose, the oldest man in the field, won the gold with ancient legs, gray hair and a heart that stays forever young.

Carl Lewis beat age, gravity, history, logic and the world on Monday night at a rocking Olympic Stadium in Atlanta to win the gold medal in the long jump, becoming the only track and field athlete besides discus thrower Al Oerter to win four gold medals in a single event. It was his fourth and last Olympics, his ninth gold, his 10th medal and quite possibly his most impossible moment in an impossibly brilliant career.

And it all began so ordinarily. Lewis sat in third place behind Emmanuel Bangue of France and Mike Powell. Lewis had looked very mortal in his first two jumps, but something happened to him on his third, something you could see in his eyes. He veered right on his approach, but thumped the board and took off like he meant it. Lord, he stayed up forever. Looking down at it from the heavens, it must have been some sight, Lewis hanging up there like some David Copperfield trick, bathed in camera flashes, tens of thousands of them, so that Olympic Stadium looked like a bowl of stars, and the brightest was Lewis.

And now gravity remembered and he started to descend, stretching all those old bones and muscles and memories toward history. And as he came down, he actually looked down and to the right, to the huge meter markers set there for the crowd, to see how far he might go. And when he hit, he did not fall back, but sprang forward and then out of his favorite sandbox in all the world. When he saw his heel marks, saw how far he had gone, he collapsed to his knees and fell flat forward, as though he had taken a javelin in the back. When the scoreboard finally came up seconds later and read 27’10 3/4"–his best jump at sea level in four years, since the Barcelona Olympics–Lewis looked stunned, and as he clutched his graying head, the crow’s feet around his eyes stretched seamless, and those old legs bounced him around like a schoolboy.

The favorite and world-record holder, Powell, lurked in fourth place with two tries left. But on his fifth jump Powell fouled and, worse, strained his groin. Atlanta was his last chance to beat Lewis in an Olympics–he never had–and Powell could feel it slipping away. He had spent a lifetime sitting on track benches, waiting for Lewis to drop more hurt on him. He had lost to Lewis in Europe and Asia, lost to him from ahead and behind; he had lost to him for eight straight years at one point, and now it was happening again. When Powell tried to jog, to try a sixth jump, the pain was even worse, and he sat back down, weeping.

Yet he tried again, against all sense. As Powell sprinted down the runway, he grimaced, and as he leaped and rose, it seemed as if he tripped in midair, and he landed face first and writhed forward in pain. He lay there for minutes until finally rising, his dark body and face covered in sand and tears and regret.

“It’s over,” Powell said later in the dark reaches of the stadium, as Lewis took still another victory lap at his expense. “I can’t believe it. I didn’t win. I didn’t get a chance to medal.”

Lewis needed to witness only two more jumps to wrap up his preposterous achievement. The first was made by Bangue. But Bangue was a dud. And then came the other American, Jumping Joe Greene, who smiled at the situation, got the crowd clapping and then fouled.

Lewis first hugged Greene, who won the bronze (James Beckford of Jamaica was second), and then took his lap, holding not one American flag but two. He hugged Jesse Jackson on the way, and his sister, Carol, and then passed a huge banner that read, THANK YOU, CARL LEWIS.

You try to give the man a gold watch, and he steals your gold medal instead. You ask him to pass the torch, and he sets your Olympics on fire instead. “You’ve just seen a great performer at the end of his career,” said Lewis’s coach, Tom Tellez. “People thought he couldn’t do it, but he did. He’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen.”

What’s funny is that all last week there was a guy bopping around Atlanta saying he was Carl Lewis, but he sure didn’t seem like Carl Lewis. The real Carl Lewis doesn’t have gray hair popping up like white coals in a charcoal bed. This one said he was 35. Carl Lewis isn’t 35. He will always be 22, scorching lane 4, his opponents dragged along in his shoesuck. This Carl Lewis wasn’t even entered in an Olympic sprint. Not the 100, not the 200, not the relay: At the U.S. trials he missed qualifying for any of the sprints by a Georgia mile, actually finishing dead last in the 100. He grunted and moaned for a while about not being the anchor in the 4x100, saying he had been promised the spot by U.S. track and field coach Erv Hunt (“I’m still the best 100 anchor in the world,” Lewis said last week), but people just sort of turned away and rolled their eyes as if Lewis were Uncle Milt at Thanksgiving, challenging everybody to wrestle.

One day in Atlanta a man and his child went up to Lewis, and the man said, “Mr. Lewis, my father took me to see you in Los Angeles!” That was a crusher. And when Lewis was around the U.S. women gymnasts last week, he said he felt slightly older than carbon. No wonder. When Lewis made his first Olympic team, in 1980, Dominique Moceanu hadn’t been born.

In Atlanta, Lewis was less an athlete than a sort of complicated memorial. He was selected to represent the athletes of 1984 during the opening ceremonies and later was honored as one of 100 golden Olympians at a banquet celebrating the Games’ centennial. One member of the U.S. team, marathoner Jenny Spangler, probably wouldn’t have made it to the '96 Games had she not been among the several athletes Lewis personally sponsored at the trials. Here he was, wanting to be feared but getting bronzed instead.

This Carl Lewis had so little to do. Only one event for the man who used to buzz from 100 heat to long jump final to 200 semifinal in a single day? This Lewis was wandering around with time on his hands. It was like seeing Martha Stewart with her feet up, tossing cards into a hat.

What Lewis had become in this, his final Olympics, was just another athlete thrilled to have made the team and praying to win a medal. “I’ll be just like 99 percent of all the other athletes,” he wrote in his America Online column before the Games, “and it’s the first time in my adult life that I can actually say that.” He had qualified for the long jump by an inch, and it was an upset that he had made it at all. It would be even more of a shock if he won a medal. His longest jump this year–27’2 3/4", at the trials–was more than two feet short of Mike Powell’s world-record 29’4 1/2".

Still, none of this bothered him. In fact he seemed to love the challenge. “I’m not afraid to lose,” he said–and the admission made him smile. For the first time in his Olympic career Lewis could finger paint his way through the Games instead of having to reproduce the Sistine Chapel.

This Lewis was less scripted, more spontaneous. He has always seen life as a drama and himself as the third act, but in Atlanta, Lewis was emotional right from the start. He set an American Olympic record for Kleenex. When U.S. gymnast Dominique Dawes stumbled and fell out of medal contention in the all-around competition last Thursday, Lewis stood in the stands and cried. When a swimmer, not even an American, broke down and cried one day over making the finals, Lewis sat in the stands and cried too. He would think of his father, who was buried in 1987 with Carl’s first gold medal in his hands, and tear up. “I don’t know,” Lewis said in a quiet moment. “You get older, you start appreciating things more.” Even Olympics.

But a song from the old days kept playing on his mind’s jukebox. He had this epiphany during a workout in Houston before he flew to Atlanta. His jumps were perfect. His sprints were perfect. His muscles felt fine, his spirits finer. The allergies were gone, as were the cramps that had bugged him during this year’s trials. He was climbing out of the long jump pit when it hit him. “All of a sudden I had this eerie feeling that I was winning the gold medal,” he said. “Right then. And that’s when I said to myself, You know, you could win this.”

He started thinking about one more victory lap. Start in L.A. and end in Atlanta. Lewis got his game plan ready. “I want to get 'em with the first jump,” he said. “I’ve won Olympics with my first jump. I just want to jump 28 feet and see what happens.”

The way Lewis was jumping in the qualifying, it looked as if he would have to see what happened from the stands. Twelve would go on to the finals, but on his first try Lewis jumped like a man in marble shoes, going a measly 26’ 1/4" to rank 11th. On the second try he aborted at takeoff, leaving him very uh-oh 15th. And that’s where things stood as Lewis readied for his third and last try, wiggling nervously and looking down that long runway into the rest of his life. “No way I wanted that to be my last experience in the Olympics,” Lewis said. Faced with do or die, he did, flying not only into the top 12, but into the top one, hang-gliding 27’ 2 1/2". It was the longest jump of the night and the most thrilling qualifying Olympic leap since Jesse Owens took a tip from Luz Long.

As Lewis left the track that exhausting night, a red-eyed Jeffrey Marx, Lewis’s biographer, reached out across a barricade, arm-tackled him to his chest and said, “You’re going to win this thing.” Lewis looked at him as if he were telling him the sky is up. “Oh, I know I am,” he said. “Absolutely.”

So one last time, in his neat-as-a-pin hotel room at the Sheraton in Atlanta, he laid out his Olympic uniform as he always has–the singlet over the back of the chair, the shorts on the seat, the socks over the shorts and the long jump shoes in front, a dream just waiting to be filled.

By 10 p.m. on Monday, July 29, 1996, Lewis had realized one of his wildest dreams yet.

“How the hell did you all get in my dream?” he asked as he sat down at his press conference.

And when they called him forward to his last Olympic victory stand in that sweet Georgia night, he covered his face with his hands again and again, as if even he couldn’t believe this. And before they played the first note, he was crying again.

Boy, some guys just can’t stand happy endings.

PHOTO (COLOR): COVER PHOTO: The BEST EVER-Kerri Strug guts it out. Michelle Smith makes waves. Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson tear up the track. And Carl Lewis? By soaring, at 35, to his ninth gold medal, his fourth straight in the long jump, Lewis lifts the spirits of a Games shaken by tragedy. History’s greatest Olympian bows out in style. [Carl Lewis landing in long jump pit]

PHOTO (COLOR): Carl Lewis

PHOTO (COLOR): Lewis’s third jump, which went 27’10 3/4", produced the ninth gold of his glittering Olympic career.

PHOTOS (COLOR): After an injured Powell fell face-down in the long jump pit, Lewis again stood tall on the medal stand. [Mike Powell in long jump pit; Carl Lewis wearing Olympic gold medal]