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Off the Record

Lewis, who won four gold medals, was booed when he passed on four chances to beat Beamon's mark

August 01, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Of course Carl Lewis remembers the booing. How could he not?

He had soared 28 feet, one-quarter inch on his first long-jump attempt and fouled on his second try, and each of the four times he passed a chance to do better, the boos cascaded from the Coliseum stands. He heard them. He was neither superhuman nor unfeeling, his chiseled 6-foot-2 frame and aloof image to the contrary.

"I knew exactly why they were booing. It was because I wasn't jumping," he said. "You're sitting there and people don't understand the sport and they don't realize I knew that the next-best jump was like 27-3 or something like that, and with the conditions, they probably wouldn't jump that."

He also knew his body was reaching its limit.

Monday, Aug. 6, was Lewis' fourth consecutive day of competition. He'd gone through the heats, semifinals and finals of the 100-meter dash -- he won in 9.99 seconds -- as well as long-jump qualifying. After the 100, "I put the gold medal in a cabinet, had dinner and went to bed because I got back at 10:30 at night and had to long jump at 10 the next morning," he said. "My Games, it was like I couldn't even think of yesterday. I couldn't celebrate yesterday."

The long jump final was in the evening, hours after he ran two heats of the 200. The semifinals and finals of the 200 and the rounds of the 400-meter relay still lay between him and his goal of winning the four events Jesse Owens had won in 1936.

So while the crowd got caught up in the moment and hoped he might try to break the record of 29-2 1/2 that Bob Beamon had set in the thin air of Mexico City in 1968, Lewis had to conserve energy for the days ahead.

After the foul, "I said, 'This is over. I've got to run tomorrow,' " said Lewis, who won 65 consecutive long jump finals between February 1981 and August 1991. "That was kind of my philosophy. It's no different than a team that's in a seven-game series and is up by 50 and you put everybody else in. I'm not a team. I can't put someone else in, so I just rest."

And even though his only legal jump would win by more than 11 inches, fans booed when he refused to take flight again. He was surprised, but not swayed.

"It was cold and it was windy. Those big stadiums, people don't realize how windy it is," he said. "Just imagine: Our run is between 45 and 55 yards. That's what most approaches are. The wind is rarely blowing in the same direction and it's never blowing the same direction for each jump. Most of the time it's blowing four or five different ways during the same run, with the wind swirling like crazy.

"Then when you step up to the run that first time, it might be blowing in your face. You start going down and it's going to one side, and so you make an adjustment. The next time you stand up, it's at your back when you start. So when you get off a jump like I did, 28 feet on the first one, I said, 'This is over. You can go home.' I knew that was going to win."

What stung was the wrath heaped upon him later by critics who said he cheated fans of seeing him break Beamon's record.

"Carl Lewis came across as a package -- no more, no less -- bloodless, lacking the endearing humanity that drew us close to Owens," Mike Littwin wrote in The Times.

Times columnist Jim Murray called him "a commodity."

Lewis was baffled.

"Two days later I ran the 200 and the place went crazy," he said, "and when I ran the relay, it was the same thing. We set the record. Everybody said, 'The athletes hate Carl,' but when I was standing at the finish line of the relay, every team's athletes picked me up and carried me off like I was a Super Bowl coach. The next day it was like, 'All the athletes hate him,' and I was like, 'Wait a minute. They just picked me up and carried me off and that never happened and never happened again.' It was just amazing.

"It became an easy story. The thing is I look back at that and I feel honored in a lot of ways because I don't know very many athletes who could put up with all the stuff I had to deal with for 20 years. They say the Lord doesn't give you more than you can handle. He definitely knew how much I could handle. He challenged me."

He blamed the booing on U.S. track officials for not making it clear why he didn't jump again. He battled the track federation often, pushing for lucrative paydays for athletes and to rid the sport of performance-enhancing drugs.

"They let me down, they let the media down, they let the public down," he said. "Because here we are, in a sport that 99% of the people watching it don't understand because most people don't watch track. It was our job to educate the public and they didn't do that."

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