Carl Lewis. The name itself conjures images of dominance. One of the most accomplished track and field athletes of all-time, Lewis managed to carry that success to four separate Olympics, winning gold each time he took the stage at the quadrennial spectacle. From humble beginnings, he went on to become a worldwide superstar and the greatest American Olympian of the 20th century.
Frederick Carlton Lewis was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 1, 1961. The Lewis family was filled with athletes, as his mother Evelyn was a hurdler and his parents jointly ran an athletics club. Carl’s younger sister Carol went on to become an Olympic long jumper and took bronze at the 1983 World Championships. When the family moved to New Jersey during his early years, Carl thrived in track.
Lewis began competing in the long jump starting at 13 years old, and during his time at Willingboro High School in Willingboro Township, New Jersey he dominated, ranking fourth all-time among junior long jumpers. He also broke the national high school long jump record as a senior, with a mark of 8.13 meters (26 feet, 8 inches). He chose to attend the University of Houston and by his freshman season was already a world-class long jumper. He won the 1980 NCAA championship with a jump of 8.35 meters (27 feet 4.5 inches) and was poised to make his Olympic debut that summer, but the United States boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow.
At the same time the United States was sitting out the 1980 Olympics, Lewis was developing into a world class sprinter as well. He would have been a member of the 4×100 meter relay team at the 1980 games, and by the end of that year he was the world’s sixth-ranked long jumper and seventh-best 100-meter runner.
By 1981, Lewis was the fastest man in the world, after posting a 100-meter time of 10.00 in competition. That was the third-fastest time in history. Lewis also appeared on the verge of eclipsing a record that until then seemed unbreakable: Bob Beamon’s world record long jump of 8.90 meters (29 feet 2.25 inches). In 1982 Lewis became just the third man to ever clear 28 feet (8.53 meters), and actually did it seven times that year (twice indoors, five times outdoors). His top mark of the season was 8.76 meters (28 feet 8.75 meters). Lewis also had a leap observers believed had reached 30 feet (9.14 meters) at one meet, but he was ruled to committed a foul on it. Lewis, and many others, believe that jump should have stood and that the rules had been misinterpreted.
Beamon’s famous leap came at high-altitude during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but Lewis insisted on skipping high-altitude meets because he wanted to break the record without any questions about the thin air. His top mark in 1982 (8.76 meters) was the new low-altitude world record.
When the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles rolled around, Lewis was already one of the world’s top athletes. He entered four events at those games, trying to win gold in each and match Jesse Owens’ feat from the 1936 games. While his competition was depleted in Los Angeles, Lewis was able to match Owens by winning all four events in dominant fashion.
Lewis cruised to victory in the 100 meters, posting a time of 9.99 seconds and beating his closest competition by 0.2 seconds. In the long jump, he also won easily, with a leap of 8.54 meters (28 feet). He won by almost a full foot over silver medalist Gary Honey of Australia (8.24 meters). In the 200 meters, Lewis again came out on top in an Olympic-record time of 19.80, the third fastest mark in history. He then anchored the United States’ 4×100 relay team to gold in a world record time of 37.83.
Despite becoming a sensation at the 1984 Olympics, Lewis did not garner much interest from sponsors. Rumors circulated that he was gay, which hurt his marketability and his perceived arrogance kept lucrative deals at arm’s length.
Lewis continued to dominate the track world after 1984, and heading into the 1987 World Championships in Rome, he was the best athlete on the planet. He won the long jump gold, then lost to Canada’s Ben Johnson in the 100 meters, Lewis then claimed “there are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. i don’t think they are doing it without drugs. I could run 9.8 or faster in the 100 if I could jump into drugs right away.”
At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Lewis and Johnson headed for another much-hyped showdown. Lewis’ father had passed away in 1987, and Lewis buried is 100-meter gold from the 1984 Olympics with him. Johnson beat Lewis again in Seoul, clocking a world record time of 9.79 seconds, while Lewis set an American record of 9.92 seconds. Three days later, Johnson tested positive for steroids and Lewis was given the gold medal and a new Olympic record and later the new world record.
In the long jump, Lewis faced competition from fellow Americans Mike Powell and Larry Myrics, but his leap of 8.72 meters (28 feet 7.25 inches) was enough to secure gold. The U.S. swept the podium in the event for the first time since 1904. Lewis finished in second in the 200 meters, despite besting his Olympic record time from 1984 with a 19.79 second-sprint. In the 4×100 relay the Americans were disqualified for fumbling an exchange.
Lewis was fading as a star by the time the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo rolled around. At 30, he was no longer the top long jumper or sprinter in the world. But at those world championships, Lewis won the 100 meters with a world record time of 9.86 seconds and anchored the 4×100 meter relay team to a world record time of 37.50. But his long jump battle with Mike Powell was what people remember from that year.
Lewis hadn’t lost a long jump competition in a decade, but Powell was able to top him with a jump of 8.95 meters (29 feet 4.25 inches). But Lewis had also bested Bob Beamon’s record with a jump of 8.91 meters (29 feet 2.75 inches) in the previous round. Lewis’ jump was ruled to be wind-aided so it did not count as a world record, but was still the second-best mark of all-time when the competition was over.
At the 1992 Olympics as a 31-year-old, Lewis had failed to qualify in the 100 and 200 meters, but finished second behind Powell in the long jump. At the Barcelona games, Lewis found some magic, and his first-round jump of 8.67 meters (28 feet 5.25 inches) won him his third-straight Olympic gold medal in the event. Powell finished second with a jump of 8.64 meters (28 feet 4 inches). In the 4×100 meter relay, Lewis anchored the American cause and led them to a world record time of 37.40 seconds. His final split of 8.85 seconds is still the fastest recorded anchor leg of all time.
Four years later Lewis managed to qualify again for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a long jumper. And, again, he shocked the world. At 35 years old he unleashed a third-round jump of 8.50 (27 feet 10.5 inches) to win the competition by almost a foot over Jamaican silver medalist James Beckford. It was his fourth-straight Olympic long jump gold, and he became just the third man to win a single event four times at the Olympics.
Lewis was controversially not included on the United States’ 4×100 relay team in Atlanta, and the Americans finished second to Canada.
Lewis retired from track in 1997 but his legacy is still felt today. He remains the only man to defend an Olympic long jump title successfully and still has the third-longest legal jump of all-time (8.87 meters). The International Olympic committee named Lewis the “Sportsman of the Century in 1999 and was named “World Athlete of the Century” by the International Associations of Athletics Federations.
While Lewis has done some odd things since his retirement — including running for a seat in the New Jersey Senate, a terrible acting career and some awful singing — Lewis remains one of the greatest athletes the planet has ever seen. He finished his career with 10 Olympic medals, nine gold and one silver. His four-straight Olympic titles in the long jump will likely never be equaled.
He has to be considered among the greatest American Olympians of all-time but, one man edged him out for the top spot. Stay tuned to find out who.