IN THE LENGTH OF TIME IT’S GOING TO TAKE YOU TO READ THIS SENTENCE, which should be just under ten seconds, Carl Lewis was able to bust out of the starting blocks at a track meet and run 100 meters at full speed, his thighs pumping like pistons, his arms slicing back and forth through the air. Think about it: He’d sprint the length of a city block in the same amount of time it would take you to pour a cup of coffee and carry it to the kitchen table. Then he’d catch his breath, head over to the long jump area, take a running start, plant his right foot on the long jump board, and propel himself at least 28 feet through the air—about the width of a two-lane highway.
Stand at your local neighborhood bar and jaw all you want about the glamorous baseball, football, and basketball stars from Texas. Shout out your precious statistics about who struck out what hitters, who scored which winning touchdowns, and who hit how many shots at the buzzer. The fact is, when it comes to individual athletic superiority, few people in the world can touch long, lean, and impossibly fast Carl Lewis, who came to Texas in 1979 to attend the University of Houston, immediately qualified for the U.S. Olympic team at age eighteen, and dominated his sport—all of sports, actually—for the next sixteen years.
In world-class track and field, where a single slightly strained ligament can mean the end of a career, sixteen years is an eternity. Yet staying healthy was the least of Lewis’ feats: He mastered both running and jumping events, which no one else has been able to do for the past half century. Although he didn’t get a chance to compete at the 1980 Olympics because of the U.S. boycott, the next time around, in 1984, he matched Jesse Owens’s record of four gold medals with four of his own. He added two more golds in 1988, two in 1992, and in 1996, at age 35, his hair flecked with gray, he won his final gold with a victory in the long jump.
“I’m finished. There’s nothing more to prove,” Lewis, now 38, told me recently at Café Noir, the stylish restaurant he co-owns near downtown Houston. Then he raised his eyebrows and gave me a knowing look. “But I’ll be honest with you. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I can stay in good enough shape to medal again at the 2000 Games.”
Even today, he continues to be a man of unbridled confidence—and he still refuses to apologize for being different. While he talked to me, he slipped off his shirt to pose for a photographer, revealing a ring in his pierced navel that matched the pair in his ears. Today, of course, such ornaments on a famous athlete are not particularly noteworthy. But who will ever forget Lewis’ ability to startle the public with his eclectic fashion sense? He’d turn up one day in cowboy garb, then another in a Robinson Crusoe outfit, and then arrive at a major track and field meet in a warm-up suit that not only was skintight but was also dyed the color of his skin, making it seem, at first glance, that he was naked. He was always changing his hairstyle in the old days, and he had the shape of his nose changed too, if you believe some press reports. Then there was his ad for Pirelli, the Italian tire manufacturer, that showed him in the “set” position, with his rear end up, and wearing a pair of red stiletto heels.
It is precisely because of his desire to do things his own way that so few of us regard him as an American hero. Despite Lewis’ long career and the quality and quantity of his achievements, it was impossible really to know him in the way we knew, say, Roger Staubach or Nolan Ryan. Over the years we booed him for what we considered to be his imperious superstar attitude, called him a grandstander, derided him as a rebel, and even passed on rumors about his private life. Through it all, though, Lewis never wavered. He ran his life as he ran track: at his own speed and at his own rhythm. “Do you want to know what makes me most proud?” he told me. “I represented change. It was very important for me to leave a mark, whether it was through the push for better drug testing of athletes or bringing professional pay to the sport or trying to pull the image of track and field out of the Dark Ages.”
WHO KNOWS HOW FAMOUS HE WOULD BE RIGHT NOW IF he had followed a more traditional path to athletic stardom? He was born in Alabama to William and Evelyn Lewis, who had been track and field stars themselves when they attended the Tuskegee Institute. They later became schoolteachers and civil rights activists, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the early sixties. In 1963 they moved Carl, his two older brothers, and his younger sister to a Philadelphia suburb, where they started a track and field club. Little Carl dreamed about becoming the next Jesse Owens or Bob Beamon. He marked off 29 feet, 2 1⁄2 inches in his front yard—the record-setting distance Beamon had jumped at the 1968 Olympics—and tried even then to match it.
By age sixteen, Lewis was jumping nearly 26 feet and running the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds. He came to the University of Houston because of the reputation of track and field coach Tom Tellez, who taught him a more scientific way of performing (“Every movement in every event must conform to certain biomechanical laws” was Tellez’s mantra). In early 1981 the nineteen-year-old Lewis stunned the track-and-field world with a 27-foot, 101/4-inch jump at the Southwest Conference Indoor Championships in Fort Worth—the fourth-best long jump in history. He then entered the 60-yard dash