Fox's 20th Century: 1980-85: Carl Lewis

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The Independent Online
THESE WERE the golden years of Coe and Ovett and Torvill and Dean. Tempting though it is to put them forward as the sportsmen and woman of this half-decade, Carl Lewis has to be the choice. The highlight of the American's career came at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where he won four golds. It was said by his critics, of whom there were many, that it was a period of poor competition. Be that as it may, the sight of Lewis accelerating in a sprint or speeding towards the long-jump pit was memorable.

In the Los Angeles 100m he started badly yet had a 2.5m lead at the end, the biggest ever margin. He was majestic in the 200m. He irritated the home crowd by taking only two attempts in the long jump but he still won comfortably. Then he anchored the US 4 x 100m relay team to victory and a world record. The only previous athlete to command such a range of Olympic success was Jesse Owens in 1936. Yet the American public was largely unmoved.

Although he won nine Olympic golds, Lewis would have gained few awards for modesty. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961, he won 65 successive long jumps and recorded the most legal 100m times under 10 seconds. His Olympic golds included one given to him in 1988 after Ben Johnson, who had beaten him in the 100m, was disqualified for taking drugs. Lewis was never slow to condemn those he suspected may have boosted their careers through cheating. Before Seoul he was hinting that Johnson was on drugs. He ran as if he knew he would be beaten, just as he had been by Johnson in the 1987 world championships. He compensated by winning the long jump.

He set a world record of 9.86sec for the 100m during the world championships of 1991 in Tokyo and won his third Olympic long-jump gold in Barcelona in 1992, along with gold in the 4 x 100m. Finally, at 35, and in spite of injuries he competed in the 1996 Games and again won the long jump. His capabilities had been emphasised at the first world championships in Helsinki back in 1983 when he won three golds. He then dominated the long jump for more than a decade.

Lewis was accepted as the greatest athlete of his era, but reluctantly. He was accused of arrogance, but vanity is a tough taskmaster and one that refused to let him quit. He always said that he never even considered with whom he was competing. While Linford Christie often said the same, he also admitted that if Lewis was in a race he was full of apprehension.