Who Is Carl Lewis?
Track and field athlete Carl Lewis qualified for the Olympics in 1980, but did not participate because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. He did go on to compete in four Olympic Games—1984 in Los Angeles, 1988 in Seoul, 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta. He won numerous gold and silver medals before his retirement in 1997.
Frederick Carlton Lewis was born July 1, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama. Raised in Willingboro, New Jersey, Carl and his three siblings enjoyed a middle-class upbringing, one in which their parents, Bill and Evelyn Lewis, exposed them to a variety of arts and sports. With his mother, Lewis attended plays and musicals and took classes in cello, piano and dance.
Lewis got his first taste of track and field events by competing for the local town club, which his parents both coached. While initially short for his age, Lewis underwent a traumatic growth spurt at the age of 15, shooting up two and a half inches in just a month, forcing him to get around on crutches until his body could adjust to the change.
By the time Lewis was a senior in high school, he was one of the premier track and field high school athletes in the country. His long-jump mark that year of 26-8 ended up setting a new national prep record.
Spurning the chance to stay local and attend Villanova University, Lewis enrolled at the University of Houston in 1980. There, Lewis continued to set track and field marks. In 1981, he was named the top U.S. amateur athlete after becoming just the second person in NCAA history to win the 100 meters and long jump at the college championships. The first person to achieve that accomplishment had been Lewis' idol, Jesse Owens.
While Lewis qualified for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, he never got the chance to compete because of the U.S. boycott. Four years later, Lewis became the most dominant force at the Games in Los Angeles.
In the 100 meters, Lewis was transcendent, setting an Olympic record by besting the next closest runner by a record eight feet. He went on to win three additional golds in the long jump, the 200, and the 4x100 relay.
Lewis went on to compete in three more Games: the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain; and the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In all, Lewis won nine gold medals, including a final gold in 1996 in the long jump. That same year, Lewis regained the ranking of No. 1 in the event, an astonishing 15 years after first claiming the top spot.
In addition, Lewis won eight career gold medals in the World Championships. His athleticism was so spectacular that the Dallas Cowboys drafted Lewis, who'd never played a down of college football, in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL draft. Two months later, the Chicago Bulls selected the track and field star in the 10th round of the NBA draft.
Lewis' long competitive career came to an end on August 26, 1997, following his participation in the 4x100 relay at the Berlin Grand Prix.
Off the Track
Despite his Olympic glory, Lewis has experienced a complicated relationship with the press and public. Never lacking confidence, Lewis has been dubbed by many as just plain arrogant.
Already sponsored by Nike when he was a student at the University of Houston, Lewis unsuccessfully tried to bat back the perception at the 1984 Games that he cared more about his commercial appeal than about the Olympics themselves. As a result of that perception, the swath of endorsements he expected after his winning performances never came.
In addition, Lewis was quite vocal against fellow athletes who'd been caught or were perceived to be, using steroids to gain a competitive advantage. His biggest target was Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who initially beat Lewis in the 100 at the Seoul games but was later stripped of his title after testing positive for a steroid.
But in 2003 Lewis had to admit that he himself had tested positive for banned substances during the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials. In acknowledging the revelations, however, Lewis was far from contrite.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "Who cares? I did 18 years of track and field and I've been retired for five years, and they're still talking about me, so I guess I still have it."
Awards and Honors
In 2001 Lewis was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame. Around that same time, Sports Illustrated named the retired star its "Olympian of the Century," while the International Olympic Committee named him its "Sportsman of the Century."
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