World Athletics Championships: Lewis has the style but Fredericks has the speed: Age catches up with the world's greatest athlete while Britain's golden girl pleas for parity

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IT HAS been common knowledge for years that Carl Lewis is the greatest athlete of his age, probably of all time. The record book states this quite clearly: eight Olympic gold medals, eight in World Championships. He holds the world record, 9.86sec, at 100 metres. Between 1981 and 1991 he was unbeaten in the long jump with 65 victories. He has anchored the United States team to six world record relays.

If there was a medal for running backwards Lewis would be odds-on. Pushing a wheelbarrow he would get a maximum for artistic impression. He could run in an overcoat and look stylish.

Because they grow used to receiving long, loud, and practically continuous applause, some athletes become unconsciously ungrateful. Their relations with reporters are subject to frequent emotional disturbance. In common with contemporaries in other sports they become too precious for their own good. Fired up by newspapers and television their behaviour, boringly, becomes the reverse of modest.

Lewis has an ego to match anybody's but he has long since learned how to manage it. On bad days, and admittedly there have not been many, he makes an even greater effort to smile. This was the case when he finished fourth in the 100m last Sunday. He knows that excuses are not marketable.

Because they suspect he isn't sincere Lewis isn't entirely popular with his fellow athletes. It is, more or less, what Mike Powell said after defeating Lewis in the long jump and setting a world record in the world championships two years ago.

But this does not wash with the public. Patriotism aside and with respect to Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, the most popular competitors in Stuttgart are Lewis and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica. The crowd got behind Ottey completely when the judges ruled that Gail Devers of the United States had beaten her by a nose in the 100m. When she came back to win the 200m, at 33 her first gold medal in a global championship, there was a standing ovation that lasted almost five minutes.

Lewis's popularity comes from super-stardom. Even people who seldom miss an opportunity to declare themselves disinterested in sport associate him with athletics.

Ten years ago, in the US national championships, it looked as though 200m might be Lewis's best event. To quote from the US team handbook: 'Lewis ran an eased-up, look-around, mug-for-the-crowd, near-world record in Indianapolis'.

Curious then that when Lewis went to his blocks in the 200m final last night he was still looking for his first world championship gold medal at the distance in a field that carried plenty of threat.

A great roar greeted the announcement of his name and then silence settled on the arena. The gun, and they were riding the curve, Lewis running in lane seven. Hitting the straight he was down on John Regis who led at 150m. It was clear by then that Lewis, at 32, didn't have enough. He couldn't catch Regis and Frankie Fredericks of Nambibia came through to beat them both.

There was a look of puzzlement on Lewis's face as though he couldn't work out how much the years have taken from him. He peeled off his vest to reveal a perspiring torso and proceeded on a lap of honour. But what is a bronze to Carl Lewis?