The greatest athlete who ever lived competed for the final time last month, in Europe, without TV exposure, in a stadium half-full, and the next day, America’s newspapers gave him two paragraphs.
His official farewell is today, and the only way anyone could guarantee a full house was to hold his goodbye at halftime of a football game in his hometown of Houston.
Carl Lewis is leaving us, and no one seems to notice. Or care.
Well. Where are our manners? It’s not like we forgot how to throw a going-away for our sports heroes. Larry Bird Night in Boston was a starry, nostalgic affair. Mickey Mantle had a Day, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a Tour. Michael Jordan had a glitzy, prime-time, jersey-raising ceremony, and he’s still playing. That means he’ll get another.
As an athlete, not as a role model or pitchman or anything else, Lewis was superior to any of them. And yet, no one’s reaching for a hanky, just the door knob.
As in: Later, Carl. Nice knowing you. Drop us a line every now and then.
Lewis deserves better, but we never knew how to handle him, not when he was winning gold medals and not now. We were clapping for him one moment, slapping him the next. Lewis was admired, despised, envied, pitied, misunderstood and understood. Given what he accomplished in track and field, you know what? Lewis was mostly ignored.
The greatest athlete who ever lived never became an icon.
Oh yes, he’s the greatest ever, no doubt about that. Before you bring up a bald-headed basketball player in baggy shorts, understand the facts first. Lewis ruled his sport for almost 18 years. He didn’t ascend or descend over that span. He ruled. Name another athlete, in any sport, who spread that kind of excellence over that period of time. Not Jordan or Ruth or Gretzky or Ali. Not anyone.
And please keep in mind the definition of an athlete. He’s someone who utilizes most, if not all, of his motor skills. That about eliminates golfers. An athlete is someone who runs and jumps, and who ran faster or jumped farther than Lewis?
Above all, an athlete must produce when the stakes are highest, and in that sense, Lewis lives on his own planet. He produced dramatic moments. He claimed nine gold and one silver medal in four Olympics, and he could’ve had more if not for the 1980 boycott. And talk about clutch. How many times did Lewis take the baton on the anchor leg and bring his relay team from behind to victory?
All told, 17 of Lewis’ 19 medals in the Olympics and world championships were gold.
But let’s get right to the other issues, the ones that have reduced Lewis to a halftime show.
Lewis could be ungracious, manipulative, arrogant, full of himself, and most of all, enigmatic. Few will forget his refusal to give more of himself in the ‘84 Olympics, when he skimped on his long jumps to save energy. When Mike Powell, and not Lewis, broke Bob Beaman’s long-standing long jump record, Lewis didn’t give Powell his due and came off looking like a sore loser.
And then last year in Atlanta, after winning his ninth career Olympic gold in the long jump, Lewis campaigned behind the scenes to be included on the 4x100 relay, the one he refused to train for a month earlier.
Whenever America was ready to turn on to Lewis, he did something to turn us off.
He always seemed to change personas, too, and we couldn’t quite get a grip on that. He wore tight body suits, bright body suits, makeup and numerous hairstyles. He tried to sing.
Therefore, he never cornered the market on major endorsements, despite his agent once boasting that Lewis would “become bigger than Michael Jackson” following the L.A. Olympics.
Instead, Lewis came off looking like Michael Jackson.
What the fickle American public never grasped was that, with Lewis, the good far outweighed the bad. He was an innovator. He stayed clean in a dirty sport, and crusaded against steroid use. He was the first track athlete to earn big money and ultimately opened the door for others to make a decent living in the sport.
Lewis was actually quite friendly, to those who made an effort to know him, and was more accommodating to the public than most sports stars. He was loyal; Lewis never changed agents or coaches and continued to train at the University of Houston after he left the school. He did his fair share of charitable deeds.
The greatest athlete who ever lived, a good person with flaws, will run a ceremonial relay today . Carl Lewis will say his goodbye at halftime of a football game.
Well, at least a band will play.