ATLANTA — Sixteen years after he made his first U.S. team, 12 after he won four gold medals in Los Angeles, Carl Lewis' Olympic career almost came to a premature end.
Down to what could have been the last jump for the most successful long jumper in Olympic history, Lewis rallied Sunday with his best mark in two years--27 feet 2 1/2 inches--to lead qualifiers entering today's final.
After making sure that his last jump was not a foul, Lewis walked onto the track, stopped and stared smugly into the crowd of 81,203 in Centennial Olympic Stadium with his arms outstretched, as if to ask, "What? Me worry?"
If he was not worried, he should have been. Needing to finish among the top 12 in a 53-man field to advance to the final, Lewis was in 15th place at the start of the third and final round with a best of 26-0 1/4.
Although he took off six inches behind the board, his last jump was the farthest of the night. U.S. teammates Joe Greene and Mike Powell surpassed the automatic qualifying mark of 26-5 on their first jumps, Greene at 27-2 and Powell at 26-11.
Today, Lewis, 35, can become the first track and field athlete since U.S. discus thrower Al Oerter to win the same event in four consecutive Olympics.
Sunday was only a near-disaster for Lewis, but others among the sport's most accomplished athletes were not so fortunate. Defending champions Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, in the high jump, and Mark McKoy of Austria, in the hurdles; world-record holder Butch Reynolds, in the 400; and clear favorite Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland, in the 5,000, met with failure.
Reynolds strained a hamstring muscle on the first curve of his semifinal and had to be carried off the track in a cart, although he vowed that he will be sound for next weekend's 1,600-meter relay. It is doubtful that he would have won today's 400 final, considering the favorite is Michael Johnson.
But you never know.
"This is the Olympics," said U.S. distance runner Lynn Jennings, who finished eighth in the 5,000 meters. "Odd things happen, like a full moon."
The biggest upset Sunday occurred in the high jump, in which Charles Austin of San Marcos, Texas, became the first U.S. man to win since Dick Fosbury introduced his flop style of jumping in 1968.
The only flop this time was Sotomayor, the 1992 gold medalist and the only man ever to clear eight feet. Plagued by injuries the last two years, he finished 11th with three misses at 7 feet 7 1/4.
Austin, who also has battled injuries since winning the world championship in 1991, appeared as if he would have to settle for a silver medal after missing twice at 7-9 1/4, a height cleared by Poland's Artur Partyka. But Austin passed to the Olympic record height of 7-10 and went over the bar on his first attempt.
"It was a serious rush," Austin said, one that was accentuated when Partyka and Great Britain's Steve Smith failed at that height, finishing second and third, respectively. Austin missed three times at a world record of 8-0 3/4.
The other 1992 champion whose bid to defend ended Sunday was McKoy, who had the 22nd-best time--13.64 seconds in the second round of the 110-meter hurdles--and failed to advance to the semifinals. The United States' Mark Crear, formerly of USC, won his heat in 13.14, the fastest time ever run in a quarterfinal.
There was no defending champion in the women's 5,000 because this is the first year the distance has been included in the Olympics. But O'Sullivan, the 1995 world champion from Villanova, figured to win without much difficulty. But difficulty is all she had when she got boxed in, became frustrated and quit in tears with 2 1/2 laps remaining.
Wang Junxia, who quit working with Ma Junren because of his autocratic coaching style, won the tactical race in 14:59.88. It was the first track and field gold medal won by a Chinese athlete. Pauline Konga finished second in 15:03.49 to win the first medal by a Kenyan woman. In another first, Ghada Shouaa, became the only Syrian gold medalist with her heptathlon championship.
She did not think that it was devalued by the absence of two-time defending champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who withdrew Saturday because of an injury.
"I believed I could have won if she was here or if she was not here," said the 1995 world champion. She scored 6,780 points, well behind Joyner-Kersee's world record of 7,291 but well ahead of the 6,563 scored by silver medalist Natasha Sazanovich of Belarus.
Lewis was relieved not to be included among the upset victims.
"I was thinking, 'I don't want this to be my last jump in the Olympics,' " he said of his state of mind before the third round. "I didn't want to go out not jumping well. I wanted to go out at least giving my best effort."
Lewis, 35, said that he knows it will take an even greater effort to win today.
"The important thing will be to start tomorrow where I ended today," Lewis said. "I have a jump that can carry me emotionally. I can start from there."
* OUT OF AFRICA
Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba ran away from the women's marathon field. S5.
* TROJAN HORSE
Balazs Kiss of Hungary and USC had no trouble winning the hammer. S5.