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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

STILL THE KING : He Can Run but Not Hide

July 30, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Loud enough to be heard in Mississippi, a stadium sound system is pumping up the volume on a hand-clapping disco tune called "We Are Family," which is pretty funny, considering the way Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson act toward one another. Family, they are not.

The music begins just as one Texan leaves with his gold medal, and stops just before the second Texan enters to accept his. Under a full moon the color of his shoes, Johnson basks in the applause of those remaining from a crowd of 82,773, because this, hey, this is his night. Until . . . a few minutes later, in walks Lewis, upstaging him again.

Carl gets another gold.

Oh, good. Just what Johnson wanted.

"That's great," Michael says later, with all the enthusiasm of Coke congratulating Pepsi.

Suddenly, it's Sweden, all over again.

There was a gathering in Goteborg last summer to which the world's top athletes were invited, as a prelude to track and field's World Championships. Johnson was sitting there at peace with himself. That's when a representative from a sporting-goods conglomerate jumped up and proclaimed, as though heralding his majesty the king, "Ladies and gentlemen, Nike's new spokesman . . . Carl Lewis!"

And in came Carl, star of the show.

Same old song.

Therefore, naturally, when the Olympic schedule was juggled to accommodate Johnson in the 200 and 400 meters, it had to be likewise rearranged to suit Lewis, so he could try the 100 and long jump both. Michael still wasn't the man, wasn't the One. Anything he could do, Carl could do better, even if they weren't in the same events.

Carl didn't even qualify for the 100 here. He nearly failed to make it to Monday's long jump. And he just turned 35. His prime was back when Sister Sledge was singing that disco stuff.

Every time Johnson thinks he has lapped Lewis on that run to glory, he can hear the guy's footsteps.

Michael keeps waiting for Carl to "pass the torch to me."

Carl keeps snickering and saying, "What torch?"

It happened again, after Johnson won the 400 in Olympic-record time, only to have Lewis spring a huge surprise by winning the long jump. One-upped again.

Going so far as to aid Lewis' rival, Mike Powell, who had gotten hurt, Johnson explained, "He looked like he was really in some pain. I wanted to see him win tonight, even if it wasn't his night."

Guess whose night it was?

Johnson was just on TV, the night before, having the question thrown right in his face: "You don't like Carl Lewis, do you?"

He deflected that one, deftly.

After going for his gold, Johnson celebrated, did the flag bit, took the bows, slipped into a T-shirt that read "Danger Zone" and ran right into a dangerous subject.

"What did you think of Carl Lewis winning his ninth gold medal?" Johnson was asked, still waiting to be presented his first individual gold medal.

"That's great."

In the pause that followed, Johnson could have run the 100.

"No, that's good," he continued, breaking the silence. "When I say that it's time for Carl to pass the torch to me, what I mean is as the premier athlete in track and field.

"I'm not in any competition with Carl. I'm just trying to do whatever I can, so I can put my name up there with the great athletes like Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens. Carl's his own man, though. I prefer to concern myself about Michael, just as I'm sure he prefers to do the same."

Soon, Carl was addressing the same sore subject.

"Let's straighten this thing out right now," Lewis said, talking faster than he used to run. "I don't know what 'passing the torch' is supposed to mean. There's no manual on that.

"Track and field has 30-odd stars, and if we had 30-odd Michael Johnsons and Carl Lewises, the sport would be bigger in this country than it is. We don't want to have only one star, or two. I'm too old to bother about this. I don't want to dig up dandelions. I want to smell roses. There is no 'passing the torch,' understand? I'm supposed to relinquish something? I don't know what I'm not relinquishing.

"If I had an easy 1-2-3-step course to being a superstar, I would use it and share it. So enough about that."

Like a torch, though, Carl was only warming up.

"If I hadn't set a standard for making money, Michael wouldn't be making the money he's making. And he's setting a standard for the next guy. There's room for multiple stars in our sport.

"So, I don't get it. I've taken a lot of abuse. I heard people, 'You'll embarrass yourself,' 'You'll ruin your legacy,' going to the Olympics at my age. I heard the laughs, ha ha, behind my back.

"All I have to say is, don't quit because you're supposed to be too old. I'm living proof."

With that, Carl had to run.

He had an appointment on the victory stand. He knew Michael should be down by now.

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