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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

STILL THE KING : Old-Timer Is an All-Timer

Track and field: With ninth gold, Lewis has to go up there with Jesse Owens, Paavo Nurmi and Al Oerter.

July 30, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — In his first Olympics, he was equal to Jesse Owens. In his fourth and surely his last, he soared to the heights of Paavo Nurmi and Al Oerter.

Carl Lewis might not be absolutely the greatest track and field athlete of all time, but, as of Monday night, it would be difficult to argue that anyone has ever been greater.

Owens, Nurmi, Oerter and Lewis. If those four men have anything in common besides their obvious athletic gifts, it is that the Olympics brought out the best in them.

Owens won four gold medals in 1936. Lewis did that in 1984. Nurmi, the incomparable Finnish distance runner, won nine gold medals, more than any other track athlete until Lewis won his ninth Monday night with a victory in the long jump. On the same night, Lewis became the only track and field athlete besides Oerter, the U.S. discus thrower, to win the same event in four consecutive Olympics.

Oerter, sitting nervously among the crowd of 82,773 in Centennial Olympic Stadium, could not wait until Lewis finished an obligatory post-event news conference to congratulate him. Oerter walked onto the stage and patted him on the back.

"Carl is making it very difficult for me," Oerter said into the microphone. "Now I have to come back in 2000. I'll be 64 years old. I'm too old for this."

Oerter then excused himself, saying that he did not want to intrude even a second longer on Lewis' moment.

There are notable parallels between Oerter's fourth gold medal in the discus and Lewis' in the long jump. Even though he had won in 1956, '60 and '64, no one gave the 34-year-old Oerter a chance in 1968 in Mexico City. He had not thrown particularly well in the previous four years, made the U.S. team on a prayer and seemed outclassed by U.S. teammate and world-record holder Jay Silvester.

But Oerter's third throw of 212 feet 6 inches, five feet farther than he had ever thrown, so stunned the rest of the field that no one could approach it the rest of the day.

Lewis, 35, has not been a factor in the long jump since 1992. He qualified as one of the United States' three long jumpers by finishing third in last month's trials, one inch ahead of the fourth-place finisher.

On Sunday night, he needed the longest jump he has had in two years on his third and final chance even to qualify for the final. It seemed unlikely he could best the world-record holder, U.S. teammate Mike Powell, or 1995 world champion Ivan Pedroso of Cuba.

Then, like Oerter 28 years before, Lewis leaped ahead of the field on his third effort, a jump of 27-10 3/4 into a stiff headwind. Neither Pedroso nor Powell won medals, Pedroso bowing out after three inept jumps and Powell ending up with his face buried in the sand after heroically trying to overcome a groin injury. The closest any of Lewis' competitors could come was Bahamian James Beckford's 27-2 1/2 on the last of his six jumps.

The other jumpers could not help but appreciate that they were part of a historic night.

"It's so great to see him win, at 35 with the wind blowing in his face," said Ohio's Joe Greene, who finished third at 27-0 1/2. "Dang, he's a great athlete."

Unlike the L.A. Coliseum crowd in 1984 that booed Lewis because he did not challenge Bob Beamon's world record, passing on his final jumps to conserve energy for his subsequent races, the spectators here seemed unanimously behind him. Greene didn't blame them.

"If I was in the stands, I would have been saying, 'I hope Joe does good, but, damn, I hope Carl wins,' " Greene said. "It's a great story."

Lewis no doubt realized that but did not know how to put it in perspective, admitting at one point that for the first time in his 16-year international track and field career he was speechless.

"I don't understand it," he said. "I don't know how to express it. It's been tough, but it's been great."

Oerter had no such difficulties.

"When I was here for the trials last month, I went onto the field," he said in the tunnel under the stadium. "I had to step into the discus ring just to get the feel of it. I obviously wasn't going to compete, but there's something about being on the floor of the Olympic stadium that brings out something in certain athletes that is undefinable.

"Carl is obviously one of those athletes. It's such an exhilarating feeling. If you can control that nervous energy, you can do wonderful, wonderful things."

Now it is over for Lewis.

Or is it?

After Lewis' eighth-place finish in the 100-meter final in the trials, the U.S. Olympic track and field coaches did not ask him to participate in the 400 relay here.

Immediately after his long jump triumph, Lewis said that he would still be open to an invitation. Another gold medal would give him one more than any other Olympian, more than Nurmi, more than swimmer Mark Spitz, more than gymnast Larissa Latynina.

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