Carl Lewis, The Dominant But Unloved Athlete Of The '80s
Olympian Carl Lewis dominated the track and long jump like no other athlete in the history of the sport, winning four gold medals in 1984. Perhaps more impressive, he took the gold in the long jump in four consecutive Olympics -- that's 12 years of owning the event. But Lewis had an image problem -- though hyped in the sporting press for his achievements, he couldn't cross over into popular culture like celebrity Olympians Mark Spitz, Dorothy Hamill, and Bruce Jenner before him -- and Mary Lou Retton, a fellow 1984 gold medalist.
Carl Lewis Was A Winner On The Track
Typically, victory in America opens all doors. Whether you’re an athlete notching wins or a band going platinum, America loves winners. However, one of the most dominant athletes to ever represent America, Carl Lewis, failed to garner the love and attention that usually comes with conquering the competition. Despite taking four Olympic golds matching the achievements of the legendary Jesse Owens, America never embraced Lewis like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. Even though track and field attracted as much fanfare as basketball in the summer of 1984, when the Games were played on the Americans' home turf in Los Angeles, the loquacious and handsome Lewis just turned people off.
Kicking Ass And Taking Names
Nicknamed “shorty” by his sister, athletic success looked like a long shot for Lewis. However, after growing 2.5 inches in a single month at age 15, Lewis blossomed once he got off crutches due to the growth spurt. After burning the competition in high school and college at the University of Houston, Lewis was primed for the 1984 Olympics.
The moment was perfect for Lewis: match the incomparable Jesse Owens on the biggest stage in Los Angeles and let those endorsements start rolling in. He accomplished the first part of his mission, sweeping the 100 and 200-meter races along with the long jump and 4 x 100-meter relay. Earning the adulation of America didn’t come so easily.
Was 'Carl-Bashing' A Thing?
The anti-Lewis murmurs, what he woud later call "Carl-bashing," were already circulating even before he stepped into the arena in Los Angeles in 1984. A 1984 Sports Illustrated article reads in part like Carl-bashing:
Lewis is a child who has climbed a tree and lost himself in the self-absorption of seeing how far out on a limb he can go. The long jump wasn't far enough, so he added the 100-meter dash and conquered that. That wasn't far enough, so he added the 4 X 100 relay and the 200...
Is this a fair characterization of what world-class athletes do? Would Mark Spitz have been called "a child who has climbed a tree" and painted as greedy for adding events (in which he too won gold) to his campaign?
Yet Lewis' own words, in the same article, aren't exactly sympathetic:
"They think if I don't win four gold medals I'll be a bum," he says. "But failure doesn't loom in me. I could lose and still get so much publicity I could do whatever I want. The headlines could say 'Lewis Chokes' in August, and I'll still be making a movie in the fall. I'd be rich, and I'd be beating people, even without track, because I don't put limits on myself."
The same piece criticized Lewis for passing on football because he resented a coach's insistence that he "be a man," and for quitting soccer because he didn't make the varsity team as a sophomore (he scored 15 goals that year on the JV team). Other parts of the profile center on his vanity, his flamboyance, and his belief that the rules that apply to others don't apply to him.
Carl-bashing, or not?
A Fly-In the Ointment
Despite his unbelievable display of athletic dominance, trouble brewed on the horizon. While competing in the long jump, Lewis passed on his four remaining attempts. He knew his 28 feet was sufficient to take gold and wanted to conserve energy for his ambitious goal of four Olympic golds. Nevertheless, the crowd booed him for forfeiting his remaining four jumps, wanting him to go for Bob Beamon’s Olympic record.
It was a savvy athlete's calculation, and it was the right one, but viewers interpreted it differently, as either cockiness or a lack of ambition.
It didn’t help matters when Lewis responded in usual arrogant fashion, "I was shocked at first. But after I thought about it, I realized that they were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that's flattering." Referring to yourself in the third person, especially in ‘84, didn’t win many hearts.
No One Likes A Braggart
After the ‘84 Olympics, Lewis was eager to become the belle of the ball but all the love and attention he sought never came to fruition. As fellow Olympian Edwin Moses put it, "He rubs it in too much. A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks." Prior to winning any medals, Lewis’ agent said, “Carl will be bigger than Michael Jackson.” Putting the cart before the horse was another surefire way to turn off the public.
It also hurt Lewis that he came into prominence when America was even less tolerant. Rumors circulated that he was gay and his flamboyant appearance of skin-toned tracked suits fueled those beliefs. As fellow high jumper Dwight Stones put it, "It doesn't matter what Carl Lewis' sexuality is, Madison Avenue perceives him as homosexual." Coca Cola offered him a lucrative contract prior to ‘84 but he and his agent turned it down, assuming the offer would only grow after his Olympic performance. Coke rescinded the offer after the games. His status grew as the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Cowboys both drafted him even though he never played either sport, ever. In Tokyo and Europe, he signed large endorsement deals and was mobbed for autographs, but he never felt that kind of love in America.
The Controversial 1987 World Championships
By ‘87 Lewis’ place as one of the all-time greats was signed, sealed, and delivered. Nevertheless, the events of that year’s world championships have become so infamous, ESPN created a documentary called 9.79*. Canada’s Ben Johnson won but eventually was disqualified because of a positive steroid test. The documentary also alluded to potential performance-enhancing drug use by Lewis, who eventually was awarded the win. Without concrete evidence, the entire ‘87 World Championships remains a murky mess that contributed to the public perception that track and field was a sport full of juicers and cheaters.
A Late Scandal (That Wasn't Really A Scandal)
In addition to the charge of arrogance and suspicion of homosexuality -- which, sadly, hurt an athlete's marketability then and still would today -- the public found another reason to dislike Lewis: hypocrisy. Lewis had always been outspoken about the evils of performance-enhancing drugs, being particularly hard on his rival Ben Johnson. In 2003, Sports Illustrated revealed that Lewis had tested positive for three banned substances during the trials for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and had been allowed to participate anyway.
The story is nowhere near as bad as it sounded in the one-sentence watercooler-talk version. Lewis maintained that he ingested the substances inadvertently, as they were commonly found in cold or allergy medicine and an herbal remedy he was taking. Additionally, the levels did not merit a ban under the International Olympic Commission rules -- they merely triggered an investigation, which did occur for Lewis and other athletes, all of whom were cleared. His case wasn't "covered up," as some 2003 reports would have the public believe; all rules were followed. Finally, the IOC has since adjusted its rules -- what was a mild positive test in 1988 is now counted as a negative test.
Lewis retired in 1997, and is currently a track coach in Texas.