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OLYMPIC SCENE

Owens and Lewis: Comparing Sprinters Across the Ages

May 30, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It might be folly to compare sprinters from different eras, particularly eras as different as the ones occupied by Jesse Owens in the '30s and Carl Lewis in the '80s and '90s. Nevertheless, here we go. Who was better, Owens or Lewis?

No sprinter has been at the elite level for as long as Lewis. The fact that track and field athletes can earn sizable incomes has made it possible for him to contend for a place in his fourth Olympics (his fifth U.S. team, including the one in 1980 that boycotted) and a record number of gold medals. Two more will give him 10, more than any other Olympian.

Advantage Lewis?

Not necessarily. Perhaps Owens could have duplicated or even bettered that if afforded the opportunity. Unable to make a living in his sport because of rules governing amateurism, Owens' only Summer Olympics were the ones in 1936.

Lewis will still be competing beyond his 35th birthday on July 1, but Owens was more or less forced off the track after the Berlin Games at age 22. The year before, within a period of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935, he broke five world records and equaled another. No track and field athlete, including Lewis, has ever had a day like that.

Advantage Owens?

Not necessarily.

D.H. Potts, a respected track and field historian and author from Santa Barbara, gives the edge to Lewis. He argues that Lewis and Owens can be compared, relative to how they fared against their competition in the years leading to their first Games. For Lewis, that was 1984, when he, like Owens in '36, won gold medals in the 100, 200, long jump and 400-meter relay. Lewis was 23 then, only one year older than Owens at Berlin.

The difference is that Lewis was undoubtedly the king of the sprints from 1981 through '84. He was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100 not only in his undefeated Olympic year but also in the three years before.

There were no internationally accepted world rankings in the '30s. But if there had been, Potts said that it is unlikely that Owens would have been ranked No. 1 in the 100 in any year but '36.

Even in 1935, when Owens broke the 100-yard dash world record, he would have ranked no higher than third behind fellow Americans Ralph Metcalfe and Eulace Peacock, Potts said. Peacock beat Owens the last three times they met that year. In seven races against each other, Metcalfe won four and Owens three. Owens never beat him until a month before the '36 Games.

FACTOID

Gymnast Larissa Latynina of the former Soviet Union won more medals than any other Summer Olympic athlete with 18--nine gold, five silver and four bronze--in three Games from 1956 through '64. The only other athletes to win nine gold medals are Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and swimmer Mark Spitz.

NEWSMAKER

Much of the rest of the water polo international community might have been looking up at the United States after last week's U.S. Open in Nashville, Tenn., but that didn't mean U.S. Coach Richard Corso was on top of the world.

"Everything can change," he said. "You can't put a lot of stock in these games. It's just another step. I'm not classifying this as huge, and it's definitely not epic. In my mind, there's a long way to go."

The distance, however, was greatly reduced when the United States won the round-robin competition, going 4-0-1, defeating defending Olympic champion Italy, Canada, Brazil and Croatia. The 6-6 tie came against Yugoslavia, the 1984 and 1988 gold medalist.

Even though the Americans outscored the competition, 49-18, in the four victories, Corso said they didn't play particularly well.

"There's a lot of work to do," he said. "In [two] of the wins, I don't think we played well. But it's a mark of a good team to win that way."

The 15-member team has a short break before resuming practice Friday. Many thought Corso would make the final trim from 15 to 13 after the U.S. Open. But he said that he will wait until the June 18 deadline.

"It'll be when the team is ready and Richard Corso is ready," he said.

LAUREL WREATH

Nathalie Schneyder, a member of the U.S. synchronized swimming team, is on a poster produced by Kodak to increase breast cancer awareness. She posed with her mother, Paula Oudet, a breast cancer survivor.

THORN WREATH

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is contributing more than $200 million to a $232-million stadium for major league baseball's Braves. But the baseball team will not agree to pay for the continuing maintenance of the caldron that will protect the flame during the Games.

Olympic Scene Notes

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