Carl Lewis soared into Olympic history Monday, landing a huge jump early and daring everyone else to beat it.
No one came close.
In his final Olympics, Lewis didn’t even have to jump in the last round to secure his place as perhaps the greatest track star ever.
A record-tying nine Olympic golds. A record-setting four straight long jump titles. One of only two athletes to win golds in four Summer Games.
Lewis, at 35 still the king of track, was embraced by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a throng of athletes during a victory lap amid the roar of 80,000 fans in Olympic Stadium. He paused for a moment amid all the excitement and stuffed a little sand from the long jump pit into a plastic bag.
“To go from last night, almost not making it, and winning it, I don’t see how I can top this,” Lewis said, calling an end to his Olympic long-jumping career.
Yet no sooner had he won his ninth gold than Lewis left open the possibility of going for a 10th - in the 400-meter relay. Lewis didn’t qualify for the race he once owned, the 100, but he thinks he’s strong enough to anchor one more relay victory.
“I think I proved my fitness,” he said. “I’m in good shape. I would love to be in that relay. I don’t want to be mean and try to take anybody’s spot. I don’t want to put anybody in a position where there’s bickering, but I’d love to run in it.”
Lewis started off slow and got better and better. On his third attempt, he launched into a jump of 27 feet, 10-1/4 inches - his longest jump in two years.
That gave him the right to jump last in the final group of eight athletes on the last three attempts. Lewis used that privilege in a smart bit of strategy, saving his strength by passing on his fourth jump when no one caught him in the fourth round.
His fifth jump was only 26-5-1/2, but with world record holder Mike Powell injured on his fifth attempt, Lewis didn’t have much to worry about.
Powell mustered the courage to try one last time, but his face contorted in agony when he leaped off his left leg, fouling on the attempt. He screamed as he sailed through the air and landed facedown in the pit.
It was all over after fellow American Joe Greene, second going into the last jump, failed to catch Lewis. James Beckford secured the silver with a leap of 27-2-1/2, and Green took the bronze at 27-0-1/2.
Lewis, so relaxed at the start, wore a nervous look on his face when he readied himself for that huge third jump. His hands knifing through the air in his classic style, he accelerated into the takeoff, legs churning.
He lay face-down in the sand for a moment, knowing he had gotten off a possibly medal-winning jump. When he saw where he had landed, he broke into a broad smile and put his hands on the side of his head as if in disbelief.
When the white flag went up, signaling a clean jump, Lewis popped up and raised his arms in triumph as the crowd chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A.” He ran along the inside of the track and applauded with the crowd.
That jump would stand for gold.
Lewis looked serious when he lined up with the other long jumpers for introductions, seeking to tie discus great Al Oerter’s mark of four straight Olympic golds in one event.
But he he broke into a warm smile when his name was called and the crowd roared. Longtime rival Powell, an American who holds the world record of 29-4-1/2, got almost as loud a cheer, and he drew it out by urging the crowd on by waving his arms.
Lewis started the competition by pawing the ground with his feet, standing absolutely still for a moment and saying a few words to himself. As the crowd’s rhythmic clapping stopped, he took off.
The crowd roared, but Lewis slowed down midway through the approach, unhappy with his timing. He jogged through the pit without jumping as the crowd groaned.
Lewis talked to himself again before his second jump, and this time he took off confidently down the runway. He got off a clean jump of 26-8-1/2.
Moments later, Powell got off a leap of 26-9-3/4. He went into the final round in fourth place, behind Greene’s 27-1/2 and Emmanuel Bangue of France’s 26-10-1/2.
Lewis struggled Sunday night simply to reach the final. He jumped just 26-0-1/4 on his first attempt and fouled on his second attempt. That left him in 15th place before his last qualifying leap, with only the top 12 advancing to the final.
Then, as he turned to watch Michael Johnson run past in a 400-meter semifinal, Lewis summoned all his willpower, strength and speed and took off on a dramatic leap of 27-2-1/2.
No Olympian since Jesse Owens in 1936 had won four track golds in one year, and none has done it since.
Lewis won the 100 in the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Ben Johnson was disqualified for using steroids. Lewis also won the long jump that year, and he took the silver in the 200. In the 1992 Barcelona Games, Lewis won the long jump for the third time and again anchored the 400 relay to gold.
Lewis is now tied swimmer Mark Spitz for most golds by an American athlete.