US legend Lewis runs into racism row as he bids to enter politics

Carl Lewis, arguably the world's greatest-ever Olympian, is involved in another running battle – to become a politician. And it is one that is becoming increasingly bitter, his bid for power turning the New Jersey Senate race – normally a humdrum affair – into a high political drama, with charges of racism, illegality, and dirty politicking.

The 50-year-old former sprinter and long jumper is at the centre of a storm after a Republican representative in the New Jersey Assembly, the state senate for which Lewis hopes to stand as a Democrat in the November elections, has resigned after his wife sent a leaked email to the nine-times Olympic gold medalist that was allegedly racist.

It read: "Imagine having dark skin and name recognition and the nerve to think that equalled knowing something about politics. Sure, knowing someone with fat purse strings is nice, but you have no knowledge."

The senator, Pat Delaney, has subsequently resigned, saying: "I am deeply disappointed in my wife's decision to send that email to Mr Lewis' campaign; it does not reflect my personal beliefs whatsoever. I have decided to leave public life and apologise to Mr Lewis for any pain this caused him."

Lewis, 50, has declined to comment on the content of the email, saying: "I don't want to elevate it any further". But this is the latest episode in a months-long political row over whether the sports icon is eligible to run for office in his native New Jersey.

Lewis, who grew up in Willingboro, a middle-class town between Philadelphia and Trenton, went to college in Texas and lived in California after amassing gold medals in three consecutive Olympics beginning in Los Angeles in 1984.

The controversy began after Lewis announced his candidacy in April, when Republicans – citing records that showed he voted in California in 2009 – attempted to get Lewis kicked off the ballot for failing to meet the state's four-year residency requirement. Lewis responded that he had owned a home in the district since 2005, had a New Jersey driver's licence since 2006 and volunteered as a track coach at Willingboro High School since 2007.

To Lewis, this has nothing to do with residency and everything to do with politics. He points out he's a Democrat running in what was otherwise considered a safe Republican district, forcing the state Republican Party to spend a lot of money in a place where it usually doesn't.

"If my name was Carl Smith, they never would have challenged my residency, because Carl Smith wouldn't have been a threat to them," he says. "Because of who I am and what I've accomplished, I can energise people in a way that another candidate might not be able to. And that scares them. This is not about residency. This is about them being afraid to run the race against me."

Lewis, who describes himself as a "political junkie", says he is running to help underprivileged kids and fight high taxes. "Being in this community, seeing what was going on with kids, with families and with seniors, I felt like it was time to do something about it."

Whether he gets the opportunity to do so remains in the balance. The resulting legal battle has been through state court, where Lewis lost, and is now in front of a federal judge, who will rule on it this week. "The fact is, New Jersey's constitution violates the US constitution," says Bill Tambussi, Lewis's lawyer. "The voters can decide for themselves who they want to represent them."

Lewis was voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee. His achievements included emulating Jesse Owens and winning four gold medals in the 100 metres, 200m, long jump and 4 x 100m relay at the 1984 Olympics in Angeles. He won a further two gold medals at Seoul in 1988 before his last Olympic appearance at Atlanta in 1996 when he bowed out with victory in the long jump.

Since retiring from athletics in 1997 he has tried several careers, including trying to become an actor.

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