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The Best? His Track Record Says It All

April 21, 1996|JIM MURRAY

Who would you have to say is the greatest athlete of the century?

Babe Ruth? Well, a case could be made. Starred in two disciplines in ones sport--pitching and slugging.

Henry Aaron? Attention must be paid.

Muhammad Ali? Joe Louis? Would get votes. So would Bill Tilden, J. Donald Budge. Pele gets in the hunt. Joe Montana? Well, if you're only going to count throwing, make mine Sandy Koufax.

Michael Jordan? Well, couldn't hit the curveball. But maybe that shouldn't matter.

Jim Thorpe? Well, you're getting warm.

I think the vote here might go to Carl Franklin Lewis, Esq., of the New Jersey and Houston Lewises.

Look! How do you measure athletic prowess? The guy who can hit harder, run faster or jump higher than anybody, right?

Carl Lewis makes it on two out of three. And he never measured himself against the curve, the return of serve or the right cross. But when it came to running and jumping, well, nothing this side of Man O' War could challenge Carl Lewis in his heyday.

There is very little doubt Carl Lewis is the greatest athlete in track and field history. Eight gold medals and a silver in the Olympics close the argument. Mark Spitz rolled up seven golds in one Olympics. But he needed water. Also, you can't butterfly stroke your way to a track gold.

Lewis' staying power in a sport in which only youth has historically been served is awesome. For 18 years, he has been dominating track meets. His Olympic medal count was rolled up even though the 1980 Olympics was boycotted by the U.S. and he wasn't able to compete. The 100-meter dash was won in Moscow that year in 10.25 seconds. Lewis could run that carrying groceries. Jesse Owens ran nearly that fast winning the Berlin Olympics 44 years earlier.

Carl Lewis duplicated Jesse Owens' feat in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when he won the 100, the 200, the long jump and ran a leg on the winning 400-meter relay. That is the Quadruple Crown of track and field, a .400 average, a Grand Slam, a 2,000-yard season.

By any yardstick, Carl Lewis is to his sport what Man O' War was to horse racing, Jack Dempsey to boxing or, for that matter, Nijinsky to dancing. One of a kind. Above-the-title billing. Academy Award stuff.

That his sport is non-generic, unlike baseball or football, and is universally understood and played figures in the equation. It's a melancholy fact that Lewis will stop traffic quicker on the Champs Elysees or the autobahn or the Via Veneto than he will on Broadway or Sunset Boulevard in his own country. At the Barcelona Olympics four years ago, his arrival had all the hype of a papal visit to East Lansing, Mich. Rumor had it that the king wanted his autograph.

He will be 35 at the start of the Games in Atlanta this year but nobody is ruling him out. In any of his specialties. In fact, he requested that the international track federation reschedule the events and space them out so it will be possible for him to have a chance to duplicate his 1984 feat.

Carl even thinks he may be wanting the federation to do the same at Sydney in 2000. He shocked the track world at Barcelona four years ago, winning the long jump from a man who had just set the world record, Michael Powell.

Track stars had career spans of meteorites in the days of mock amateurism. Getting Leica cameras didn't pay the rent and today's gold-medal winner was tomorrow's playground director.

But even in the face of economic liberation, Lewis' longevity defies the odds. He ascribes it to stability, explaining, "I have had the same coach [Tom Tellez], the same manager [Joe Douglas] and the same practice facility [the University of Houston] all my career.

"There are a number of other factors: I have been a vegetarian. I keep control of what I eat, how I rest and I keep mentally fit."

Winning is often cerebral, he points out:

"You want to make your best jump first. It demoralizes the competition. That's what [Bob] Beamon did when he jumped 29 feet 2 1/2 inches on his first jump at Mexico City. After he saw that, Ralph Boston didn't even jump 27."

Lewis was as good at the mind games as he was at the rest of the Olympic Games. In the '84 Olympics, he won the gold medal with one long jump, passing on his other jumps to save energy for the 200. He wanted to use all his reserves for a four-gold-medal Olympics and a duplicate of Owens' Olympics rather than waste them on a forlorn chase of Beamon's 29-foot record.

You wonder why a farewell tour isn't on the agenda for a legend of his magnitude. Sarah Bernhardt had one. So did Mickey Mantle, Charles Dickens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sometimes the farewell tours were premature. Bernhardt had four.

No one is willing to bet Carl won't be around for the Sydney Olympics. Have-jump-will-travel.

But today may be your last chance to see the last of the great Olympians in California. He will compete in the Mt. SAC relays at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. This is the venerable meet Lewis has been competing in since 1981 and in which he will be taking part without his customary appearance fee and at his own travel expense. A sentimental journey.

It won't be a farewell appearance but it may be close to it. In any event, it will be a last chance to see a legend before you have to fork over thousands for the privilege of doing so at Atlanta this summer.

He will be running in the 200 at Mt. SAC. Maybe you didn't see Ruth bat, Dempsey hit, Koufax throw, Tilden serve, Bird shoot or Mays catch, but you can say you've seen Lewis run--which is the same thing.

* SPRINT CRISIS: At the end of 1995, Track & Field News ranked only three Americans among the top 10 in the 100 meters. C3

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