ATLANTA -- Nothing was going to stop Carl Lewis. Not an East Bloc boycott or a homegrown bomb plot. Nothing was going to keep him from becoming the greatest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete of all time.
Maybe he was there already, but Lewis removed any doubt when he won his fourth straight gold medal in the long jump last night and forged a personal link between the two American summer Olympiads to take place during his lifetime.
It all began in Los Angeles in 1984 and ended with a victory so unlikely that even the 35-year-old Lewis could hardly believe it.
"I'm just trying to figure out how all of you got into my dream," Lewis said after becoming only the second athlete -- along with U.S. discus thrower Al Oerter -- to win the same track event in four straight Olympics. "I don't remember getting up this morning."
He got up all right, and sailed 27 feet, 10 3/4 inches on his third attempt of last night's long jump final to win his ninth career Olympic gold medal.
Jamaica's James Beckford won the silver at 27-2 1/2 and fellow American Joe Greene took the bronze with a leap of 27-0 1/2 in one of the most eagerly awaited events of the track and field competition at Olympic Stadium. Earlier, American Michael Johnson won the first event of what he hopes will be an unprecedented 200- and 400-meter double, winning the 400 in the Olympic-record time of 43.49 seconds.
"I don't see how I can top this," said Lewis, who celebrated his victory by filling a plastic bag with sand from the long jump pit.
Lewis celebrated with the traditional flag-waving victory lap. He stopped about halfway around the track to hug civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and then sprinted the rest of the way into Olympic history. The ninth gold medal equaled Finnish distance legend Paavo Nurmi for the most by a single track athlete.
"The ninth one is the most special," Lewis said after his longest jump in two years. "It took the most focus. It took the most pain. And it could not have happened without a lot of support."
If it was a historic evening for Lewis, it was a horribly disappointing night for world-record holder Mike Powell, who finished second to Lewis in both the 1988 and 1992 Olympiads.
He fouled on three of his first five jumps and came up limping with an apparent groin muscle strain after the red flag went up on his second-to-last attempt. He tried to make his final attempt, but crumpled into the pit and remained face down for more than a minute, the mixture of pain and disappointment written on his sand-caked face when he rose.
Lewis earned the right to jump last in the final three rounds by virtue of his place at the top of the rankings when the field was reduced to eight. He chose to conserve his energy and pass on his fourth attempt when no one overtook him. He did make his fifth attempt, but did not approach his earlier distance.
Then it was just the waiting. Greene had fouled on his fourth and fifth jumps and -- with Powell hurt -- figured to be the stiffest competition left, but he would foul again on his final jump and send the crowd into hysterics.
"You don't want the Olympic moments to end," Lewis said, "but I wanted that competition to be over, after the third round."
When it finally ended, not even his competitors could complain. Greene even conceded that he was rooting for Lewis to jump well.
"Carl Lewis is a great athlete," said Greene, who finished third behind Lewis in Barcelona. "To see him come out and win at 35 and to win in the United States, that's incredible. To me, it means that Carl Lewis will go down as one of the greatest of all time. That was just fantastic."
The only real suspense in the final round was provided by Beckford, whose last attempt elevated the Jamaican from fourth place to second.
"It was an honor just to jump against him," Beckford said, "to jump against him for the last time -- the last time for him."
Lewis already had assured himself of an auspicious exit from Olympic competition. He turned Sunday's qualifying round into another personal showcase, sailing 27 feet, 2 1/2 inches on his last jump to move from 15th to first place in his preliminary group.
It was a dramatic moment worthy of his flamboyant career. Lewis had jumped barely 26 feet in his first attempt Sunday, then ran through his second to put himself one disappointing jump away from retirement.
If he had come up short, it would not have tarnished his impressive medal collection, but it obviously was not the way he wanted to go out. He sprinted down the runway and took off from behind the board, making sure he did not foul out.
He landed an inch past the best jump of Greene to shatter the notion that he would make nothing more than a ceremonial appearance in his fourth Olympiad.
Lewis said it would take more than that.
He said he could go farther.
And he did.
Pub Date: 7/30/96