'Spare a thought for fans'

'Spare a thought for fans'

'Spare a thought for fans'

Spectators crave for outstanding feats while competitors are only interested in medals, says the American track legend.

The name Carl Lewis evokes an array of dazzling images for a track and field fan who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Sprinter supreme and long jumper of immeasurable ability, Lewis was an athlete who enjoyed testing his limits and stretching his boundaries.

His journey to legendary status was paved with gold medals won at every meet that mattered. Named Sportsman of the Century by the International Olympic Committee, the American was also honoured by the International Association of Athletics Federations as its Athlete of the Century. 

Four gold medals in a single Olympics had been achieved before but no long jumper had ever defended his gold medal at the Games. Lewis not only did achieve that, but he went on to add two more to that collection. The man who considers himself primarily a long jumper, Lewis though lost an epic duel to Mike Powell at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, where his rival also flew to a world record of 8.95M. His rivalry with Canadian Ben Johnson also triggered plenty of sparks on the track in the eighties, keeping the fans hooked to the action.

Now coaching aspiring athletes at the Houston University besides being engaged in many other activities, the nine-time Olympic gold medallist was in Bangalore as the brand ambassador of the TCS World 10K. He spoke to the media on various matters concerning his career as well as issues related to athletics.


How did you enter the world of track and field?

My mother, who was a track athlete, wanted to have girls’ track and field in the school. It was in the sixties and back then, they didn’t have girls’ track and field in schools. My mother pushed for girls’ track and field but the school wouldn’t do it. So my father started a girls’ track programme and in the second year, the boys joined. That is how I started.

What was your breakthrough moment on track?

When I was 16, I went to the age-group nationals in the United States. At that time, I was a very good sprinter and long jumper on the east coast. I ran 10.2 hand-timed in the 100 metres and jumped 25’ 9’ (7.89 metres). I was 16 then and it was the first time ever that I had jumped over 25 feet. When I made that step, everything changed. I realised the significance of it and I wanted to go further -- I wanted the high school national record, I wanted to go to the Olympics. So that meet in Memphis set me on the way.

Another event taking me to the next level was in 1981. I won the NCAA indoor and outdoor long jump and 60M and the 100M. That was the year when I really broke out. I was a long jumper basically, it is nice to have the title of the fastest runner in the world but long jump was the engine of my career. For the first time in 1981, I jumped over 28 feet, which is over 8.50 metres and that was kind of an engine to my international career.

You’ve won nine Olympic gold medals. What was the feeling when you won the first one?

When I went to the Los Angeles Olympics (1984), I was just 23 -- an age when you believe you could do anything. When I won the 100 metres, it was a huge relief for me, because there was huge anticipation and everyone was looking forward to my expected four-gold haul. Had I won a silver, it didn’t matter what I did in the rest of the Games, I would have been deemed a failure, even if I had won three gold medals. So that was the pressure I was under and to win the 100M was very exciting. 

And what was the feeling when the ninth gold medal came?

That was very exciting too. When I was first selected for the Olympics (for the US-boycotted 1980 Olympics), I was 18 and I was the youngest male and in 1996, when I made the team, I was 35 and the oldest. It was exciting at that age to compete against rivals who were aged 21-22. I knew it was my last Olympics and it was over after this. It took huge blessings and tremendous focus to do what I did and I also had the best coach on my side. I needed every ounce of my energy I had to win that gold.

Who or what ignited the dream to go for four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics?

It was kind of weird the way it happened. When I went to college after high school, I just wanted to be a long jumper. I did not want to be a sprinter. In high school I did sprinting and everything, but in college I wasn’t going to be a sprinter.

When I was a Freshman in college, we had these challenges with other colleges and it did not take me long to dislike the other schools. That’s when I thought I need to run like this to beat them and that’s really what happened. I found success in both the events and I liked it. 

In 1981, when I decided three years before (the Olympics), the biggest things were world’s fastest human, world’s heavyweight champion and the world’s greatest athlete and those three titles were a big deal. Once I realised I could be the world’s fastest human, that’s when I pushed myself and became that. Once I became that, then I thought 200M, long jump and relay are there, why not try and do four events and match Jesse Owens’, who was my idol. It kind of evolved into that, but actually, if I had not gone to college at the university of Houston, I don’t think I would have been a sprinter, I would have been just a long jumper.

What would you pick as the greatest moment in your career?

It is hard to top four gold medals (that he won at the 1984 Olympics) but in terms of performance, it has to be the Tokyo World Championships in 1991. I set a world record in the 100 metres and jumped past the world record in long jump, which Mike (Powell) ended up getting, then we broke the world record in the relays. That was an amazing meet. I ran my best technical 100 ever, I jumped the best -- to jump over 29 feet (8.83 metres) three times in one day and the fourth one was over 28 feet, then the world record in relays; I was 30 then, so that was the best meet of my career, no question.

What was your approach to a competition?

My motto during those days was to jump for distance, not for place. Guys today jump for place, not distance. When I came in at 18, I unknowingly said I want to jump 29 feet. They didn’t take me seriously. When I jumped 28 feet at 19, people said, ‘wait a minute this guy is serious.’ 

I did not care what people jumped, I wanted to jump 29 feet. I realised that people wanted to see me jump far, and I wanted to as well. Athletes today want to win medals, but fans want to see great performances. Looking at the London Olympics, Jesse Owens' best jump would have been third in London. Are we advancing the sport if someone who competed 80 years ago can win a medal today? These are the issues that makes fans think that the sport is not getting better. You look at cricket and other sports, it is getting better. So many different issues.. Fans want to see the effort, not just medals.

No one is coming close to the world mark (8.95 metres) in long jump these days. Is it possible to break that mark?

Yes, and you know what, 29 feet (8.83) is hard and it will be hard. It will take two things — someone who knows how to do it and a person who wants to do it. You can’t settle for just winning. When I look back, when I set my first world record, I did not think about it. I just kept going. I wanted to jump 29 feet, and I hadn't done that yet.

What would be the conversation if you happen to meet Ben Johnson now?

I don’t know... I got over it a long time ago. It is really interesting because I always was the victim out of that. He was a victim, I was victimised, all the athletes in the race were victimised. If I saw him now, 25-26 years later, I will be like, ‘let it go’. That is because it still burns his heart and it is a long time to be angry. It will be like, ‘Ben let it go,’ because the only thing that affects me from 25 years ago are positive things. It’s over and it’s in the past, move on in life. I surely don’t want to go back to the 80s. The only good things of the 80s are my medals and Michael Jackson.