OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Athletics: Lewis' singular ambition to make 1992 his leap year: Carl Lewis and Mike Powell, the leading protagonists in the long jump, will today renew a rivalry which is less than friendly. Ken Jones reports

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The Independent Online
EXCEPT for a few urchins playing in the dusty grass, and the odd passer-by, it was a place of deserted quiet out there. Occasionally, a jet came in, overflying the secluded track close to Barcelona airport where Carl Lewis was preparing to renew his rivalry with Mike Powell in the long jump, which begins today.

Exotically attired in an azure leotard, small beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead, Lewis was fine tuning the technique that had brought 65 consecutive victories until Mike Powell leaped beyond Bob Beaman's historic mark last year at the World Championships in Tokyo.

So far at these Games the greatest athlete of the age, perhaps the greatest in history (winner of six Olympic gold medals), has only been a face beaming down from advertising hoardings, absent from the track as the result of miserable performances in the US trials when he failed to qualify in both the 100 and 200 metres.

Insisting this to be just a temporary setback, and having signed with the Japanese-based Panasonic Corporation, astonishingly his first major international contract, Lewis is under pressure to improve upon his status as the only man to hold successive Olympic championships in the long jump.

The prospect brought a smile to Lewis's angular features, turning up the power of penetrating eyes. At 31 he is in his third Olympics, the highest achiever in the annals of his sport. 'I like to think there is more,' he said. 'What happened at the trials in New Orleans had not entered my head. I wasn't well, not at my best, and I think there is a strong case for altering the American system of selection. In view of the great changes that have occurred in track and field it is no longer fair.'

That is not so much a complaint as a realistic appraisal of disappointments that left Lewis to concentrate on the long jump, his only chance of an individual gold medal. 'I'm in good shape,' he said, 'much better than I was for the trials, and if everything comes together I'm hopeful of beating Mike Powell.'

No hint of camaraderie in the reference; putting it mildly, Lewis and Powell are not the best of friends. It adds piquancy to the conflict that will begin with today's qualifying round. 'I've got nothing against him,' Lewis added. But that defeat in Tokyo hurt him after all those years of striving to better the record Beaman set at altitude in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics.

Seclusion is what they all seek, relief from prying eyes and the sharp focus of attention. Together with other members of the Santa Monica Track Club, Lewis is quartered in a small apartment block away from the madding crowd. 'There you can relax, think, get your mind moving in the right direction,' he added.

Powell, 28, is living much closer to where he will attempt to prove that Lewis is now history in the event. Three days ago he moved into a hotel from where he can see the National Palace on Montjuic, no more than a few minutes by car from the stadium beyond. Recently, after a huge jump, wind- assisted but the furthest in history, Powell heard Lewis speak to him. 'As far as I remember, that was the first time Carl ever went out of his way to say something. Maybe what I did in Tokyo proved something to him.'

Nevertheless, Powell has great admiration for Lewis, particularly his competitiveness. 'There were so many times when Larry Myricks and I seemed to have Carl beaten, then suddenly after doing nothing all day, he would pull out a big jump. I was afraid that he would do it again in Tokyo. Given more time he might have. That's why you have to respect the guy. He's a winner. But so am I. Tokyo was just a prelude to the whole thing. It's going to be settled here in Barcelona.'

Lewis draws encouragement from the support he has been given since those bleak experiences in New Orleans. 'Naturally, I expected it from my family and friends, from the club, my group,' he said. 'But it is even better to know that people you have never heard of want you to do well.'

Like anybody else, Lewis relishes personal success and takes pleasure in the medals he has won. What he has never acquired is widespread popularity in his homeland. Even the stupendous feat of winning four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, equalling Jesse Owens, his boyhood idol, did not work for him. 'It seems that there has always been some complaint to throw at Carl Lewis,' he added, but not with any real bitterness. What you mostly sense is puzzlement. 'Whenever I'd speak out, I was criticised. But I guess that's life. I've enjoyed it, made a lot of money, and I intend to go on.'

Not the first time in a brilliant career Carl Lewis was directing attention to the significant.

(Photographs omitted)