Lewis leaps into history

By winning his ninth gold medal, the greatest athlete of modern times proved himself the supreme Olympian. Ken Jones saw him do it
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The Independent Online
It was not the furthest Carl Lewis had jumped, not his greatest performance, but late on Monday, leaping beneath a benevolent moon, he proved himself the supreme Olympian.

If time waits for no athlete, it slowed respectfully to a crawl for Lewis who rolled back the years, becoming, at 35, only the fourth to capture nine gold medals, and matching discus great Al Oerter's feat of four Olympic victories in one event.

The joy of it was there for everyone to see. Assured of the gold when Joe Greene, the only one left with a chance of beating him, came up short, Lewis danced along the runway, arms spread wide in celebration. He embraced Greene who got bronze behind James Beckford of Jamaica, and then set off on a lap of honour, clutching at outstretched hands, savouring the clamour, taking congratulatory hugs from the Rev Jesse Jackson and his sister, Carol.

It had been a long time and this was the best of all. "The ninth is the most special," Lewis would say.

The most special perhaps because 24 hours earlier it seemed time for Lewis's Olympic obituary. Placed 15th, qualification depended on his last jump. Finding the inspiration of a true champion, Lewis not only survived for the final but leaped marvellously into first place. "I was standing there thinking that it shouldn't end like this," he said. "To have failed would have been a sad end to things, so to make that jump was inspiring and I could feel tremendous support."

Lewis was announced at just after 7pm on Tuesday as: "A man whose list of accomplishments defies description." A crowd of more than 82,000 in the Olympic stadium stood to him as they would again in his moment of triumph.

With his fourth attempt, Lewis jumped 27 feet, 103/4 inches to regain the lead. The standard was set. Beckford went beyond Lewis but fouled. The world-record holder, Mike Powell, who took silver behind Lewis in Barcelona four years ago, drew cheers every time he set off but could not find his rhythm and eventually limped away from the pit, clutching his groin.

Powell would go again, one last time, desperately pounding through the pain of his injury, screaming in agony, then collapsing in mid-air to fall face first into the sand, a picture of desolation. Reflecting on the inner-hardness in Lewis, the competitive edge that brought about resurrection last month in the US Olympic trials, somebody said: "Mike had better get out of there otherwise Carl will run right over him."

Lewis had been watching intently, respecting Powell enough to fear that he was still capable of pulling it off. "It was sad to see Mike in pain" - tears welled up in Powell's eyes as he sat waiting to jump - "but you never know. He's a tough competitor and there was no guarantee that my jump would be good enough."

It was and Greene, a sunny soul who held court until the champion put in an appearance, paid Lewis an extremely handsome tribute. "Carl is such a great athlete," he said. "He's just fantastic, and doing it at 35, jumping into headwinds, that's fantastic. One day it will be an honour to tell my kids that I beat him once. But it would have been easier to jump over the Grand Canyon than get past him tonight. If I was in the stands, I'd say, 'I hope Joe Greene jumps well, but God, Carl Lewis!' When you think of history you think of Carl Lewis."

Not even Michael Johnson with his searing pace, his gold shoes and burgeoning status could upstage Lewis on Monday. In a spat between them, Johnson has referred to Lewis as yesterday's man, Lewis to Johnson's lack of charisma. Now, holding centre stage, Lewis said: "I know of no formula for passing on the torch, at least I've never found one. I'm too old to bicker with younger people. I'm not stepping on Michael's territory.

"What he needs to understand is that we should celebrate every great athletic performance. He won a gold medal tonight, I won a gold medal tonight, Allen Johnson won a gold. It may be 14 hair styles ago, but I see the same person in the mirror, the guy who won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Games. I don't want to look at dandelions, I want to look at roses."

Lewis saw no reason to hold back in conversation, going on and on, probably setting another Olympic record. "There is a time for everybody," he said, "but nobody can tell you when to quit. People who said I should have retired after the world championships last year didn't understand the things that have driven me on, seen me through all these years. It's funny because you want all those Olympic experiences to last for ever."

First prowling around between jumps, then resting while others tried to overtake him, Lewis had found it tough out there. "When I got into the lead after the third round I thought: 'Gosh, I want to end it now, let's fast forward this thing, I'm not not a kid any more'."

Performing brilliantly, looking good and speaking well has been the formula for Lewis's enduring success story. Recalling the criticism that came his way after just one attempt when adding to 1984 long jump gold to his sprint titles, Lewis added: "Throughout my career, for 16 years, I've had to take some heat," he said. "I'm human. I heard the things people were saying but I utilised that to spur me on. I remember starting last August after the world championships when I was injured. I thought this can't be the finish, so I worked for 1996, went to the weight room and worked like a dog."

So Lewis, along with the "Flying Finn" Paavo Nurmi, swimmer Mark Spitz and the Russian gymnast Larissa Latnina, became the fourth Olympian to win nine golds. He stood on the podium, tears welling up in his eyes and the crowd rose to him. "I still cannot express how I feel," he said.

The most enduring of all champions.



100m - Gold

200m - Gold

Long Jump - Gold

4 x 100m Relay - Gold

100m - Gold

Long Jump - Gold

200m - Silver

Long Jump - Gold

4 x 100m Relay - Gold

Long Jump - Gold

1988 SEOUL