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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD

Lewis Is Track's Golden Oldie

Long jump: Fourth victory in event shows he's not only great, he's clutch.

August 04, 1996|TONY KORNHEISER | WASHINGTON POST

ATLANTA — You don't have to tell Carl Lewis about timing.

He saved the best for last.

If you thought what Lewis did the other night was clutch--when he saved his place in the Olympics by uncorking 27 feet 2 1/2 inches on his last qualifying jump--well, how about what he did Monday night?

In his final Olympic competition Carl Lewis banged out a jump of 27-10 3/4, his longest jump since Barcelona. Lewis did that on his third of six jumps in the competition, and it so stunned the other competitors that none of them got anywhere close to him after that. It was like with that one jump Lewis inhaled all the air out of Olympic Stadium; the jump was that breathtaking.

With flashbulbs popping all over the stadium, Lewis used his fabled speed to achieve liftoff and soar through the humid night. The moment Lewis landed he must have known he had done something exemplary, because he got up and then quickly fell prone into the pit, as if praying. Then, as the crowd applauded for Lewis, Lewis -- no shrinking violet -- began to applaud himself, clapping and smiling until he saw the 27-10 3/4 on the scoreboard. Talk about rising to the occasion. Then he threw his fists into the air and beamed like the headlights on one of those Chevy pickups from the Opening Ceremonies.

Nobody would catch him now. ("I felt it might make it. This hasn't been a place for big jumps," Lewis said afterward.) His chief rival, Mike Powell -- the long jump's tragic hero, who holds the world record, but no Olympic gold -- couldn't muster a good jump all night. Powell pulled a groin muscle on his fifth jump, and although he gamely attempted his sixth and final jump, there was nothing to it, and he collapsed into the sand and sobbed, the grains of sand sticking to his face like rice in a dry pot.

Lewis never really had to jump again after No. 3, and in fact passed once at No. 4, and again on No. 6. Like so many of his previous long jump competitions, once Lewis spun one out there, everyone else was jumping for place and show. You don't beat Carl Lewis, you only hope to contain him. He's citius, altius, fortius and amazingus.

Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992, and now Atlanta in 1996. It's a remarkable streak. With this improbable victory -- 24 hours prior to winning the gold medal he was down to his last jump as an Olympian, and at 35 looked as done as last week's meatloaf--Lewis joined Al Oerter (who was here to congratulate Lewis personally) as the only men to ever win four gold medals in the same event, and solidified his reputation as the greatest track and field athlete of our time. Nine gold medals and a silver over four Olympics, and there might have been more if not for the boycott in 1980. Gold shoes and all, Michael Johnson can win the 400 and the 200 and the 300, too, and he won't catch Carl.

Until Lewis' magnificent effort, the basic theme of these Olympics at the track and field venue was: Geezers Go Home.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 34, perhaps the greatest American woman athlete ever, reinjured her hamstring in the first event of the heptathlon, the hurdles. She was led off the track by her husband-coach, Bobby Kersee, who told her tenderly: "That's enough, Jackie. It's time to go." Mary Slaney, who'll turn 38 next week, sank like a stone in her qualifying heat for the 5,000. Butch Reynolds, 32, who represented himself as Michael Johnson's chief competition in the 400, reinjured a hamstring early in a heat, fell to the track, and was carted away by a medical truck. Linford Christie, 36, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 100, false started twice and was given the bum's rush.

Remember the old saying: "Don't Trust Anybody Over 30"?

I'd like to think you can trust them. Just don't bet on them.

Except Carl, of course. He's Koufax, Montana and Houdini rolled into one.

At the end of every Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch calls upon "the young people of the world to reassemble" at the next Olympic Games. The young people, not the pensioners.

Great runners like Lewis and Christie can stay in track long after they're young because they have built up a stack of chits over the years, and they're bankable at meets throughout the world. Promoters invite them to run, and pay them hefty appearance fees. Age and fatigue are less of a factor because they don't have to run qualifying heats-they go straight to the finals. Well into their thirties they're still world-class athletes. But they are no longer Olympic champions. There comes a point where it doesn't matter how willing the spirit is, if the flesh is weak. Christie, Reynolds and Joyner-Kersee had their legs wrapped like mummies. (The fact that Lewis didn't make the Olympic team as a sprinter probably saved his legs and gave him the long jump.)

This was to be the Valedictory Games for the best of them anyway. One last hurrah. Christie got his when he took off his shirt after being bounced from the 100; he showed the world he still had great pecs -- even if his legs aren't what they were.

Until Lewis' big jump Monday night it seemed he might have had his last hurrah on Sunday evening, when he used his last remaining jump in qualifying to shake the dirt off the shovel people were using to bury him, and throw himself into the final with a glorious leap of 27-2 1/2 Lewis's longest jump in four years (until Monday night). With that one jump Lewis went from 15th place to first in the qualifying -- and from out of the Olympics to another date with immortality.

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