Like it or not, Lewis is first in world, last in our hearts


BARCELONA, Spain -- Carl Lewis anchors the 4 x 100 relay today, and if no one drops a baton, and if Sergei Bubka doesn't fall from the sky, Lewis will win his eighth gold medal. For anyone else, eight golds would be a small miracle. For Lewis, they're what we expect.

It should be his last Olympic gold, except who's to say what Carl Lewis might do. As Lewis has said, "I don't put limits on myself."

If he is 31, already ancient by the standards of his sport, he still dominates the game. Watch the crowd whenever he enters the stadium. Watch the competition. Eyes don't simply turn to Lewis; they cannot leave him. History says they should not.

So, he may be back for Atlanta in 1996. It's an open question, though, whether that's bad or good.

Dennis Mitchell, one of the sprinters who has chased Lewis over the years, captured the Lewis question perfectly.

"Carl's the greatest athlete in the world," Mitchell once said, "and just going to have to live with it."

For a decade, it has been that way.

Mike Powell, the long jumper, used to think about Lewis every night before he went to sleep. Lewis haunted his thoughts, both his days and nights. And then Powell got the Bob Beamon record that had haunted Lewis on that memorable August eve in Tokyo. That should have been enough for Powell, and maybe it would have been if Lewis hadn't then beaten him in the Olympics.

And the thing about Lewis is, he beat Powell Thursday as if no one should have doubted it, and maybe no one did. You saw it. Powell lost by three centimeters -- that's a little more than an inch -- and said later than when he landed he knew it was short. Of course, it was short. It was as if the natural order had been restored.

Lewis is the greatest athlete in the world.

We live with it.

But we don't have to like it. Or, for that matter, him.

If we were ever going to like Lewis, it should have happened by now. At his age, you'd figure he'd have been accorded that grand-old-man status we generally hand out to athletes we didn't like when they were young, but gosh, they stuck around so long and gave us around so many thrills.

Like John McEnroe.

Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Remember Kareem's farewell tour? It was a two-year, hands-across-America tour for a guy that everyone, up until that time, had loved to hate.

Muhammad Ali, who was either loved or hated, eventually became everyone's favorite uncle.

Those people, in one way or another, became human.

We're still waiting for Lewis.

I watched him anchor the semifinal heat in the 4 x 100 yesterday. The handoff from Mitchell was a little shaky, and Lewis found himself trailing the Cuban anchor, Jorge Luis Aguilera.

Until Lewis blew by him as if the other guy were making change.

This did not surprise Aguilera, who said, "He is the athlete of the century. I heard the wind coming after me."

There are many things remarkable about Lewis. Among them: He's the greatest gamer ever. He went 10 years without losing in the long jump, and his record in the 100 was nearly as good. When he lost to Powell in Tokyo, Lewis beat his all-time best jump four times, three times going over 29 feet. For me, that was Lewis' greatest moment.

Of course, he came back to beat Powell at the Olympics. It's what he does. He outlasted the Ben Johnson threat. Leroy Burrell broke Lewis' record in the 100 last year, and Lewis broke it back not two months later. After which Burrell said, "I broke the world record, but somebody broke it a little better." Of course, he did. And he would have won the 100 here if he hadn't been slowed by a virus at the U.S. trials, preventing him from qualifying.

That Lewis, at his age, could so lift his game is unprecedented in his sport. But it still didn't win the fans over.

Why not?

That's a hard question. Part of it dates back to the '84 Olympics when Lewis won his four golds. Before the Olympics, his manager, Joe Douglas, said Lewis would emerge from L.A. as big as Michael Jackson. That set a tone. We know what happened. Lewis made a record. No one bought it in the United States (although it went gold in Sweden). He had a big poster deal with the four golds hanging from his neck. No one hung the poster on the wall. There was a book. It didn't sell. As a marketing job, this was in Edsel/Ishtar territory.

When Lewis won the 100 in '84,he grabbed an American flag and carried it around the track. Remember this was the morning-in-America Olympics when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was No. 1 on all the charts, and yet everyone said Lewis was orchestrating would-be patriotism.

Then, of course, the fans booed when he passed four times on the long jump to save his energy instead of going for a record. There was bad press. There was Lewis acting as if winning the four golds was his due. There were no endorsements.

He tries now. He really does. He wants to be liked. In Europe, he's a huge star; his face is on billboards everywhere here. In Japan, he is all but worshipped.

In America, where track, of course, is not nearly as important, it has always been different. Somehow, he just doesn't come off as sincere. You can't put your finger on it, but it's there.

Maybe these Olympics will finally change that. Maybe NBC is making him appear human. I doubt it.

Maybe in '96.

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