1980s1984 L A OlympicsABCJim McKayOlympicsOther SportsRunningTrack And Field

Olympics – 1984 Los Angeles – ABC Profile – USA Carl Lewis


At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles….Carl Lewis was entered into four events with realistic prospects of winning each of them….and thereby matching the achievement of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Lewis started his quest to match Owens with a convincing win in the 100 m, running 9.99 s to defeat his nearest competitor….fellow American Sam Graddy by 0.2 seconds. In his next event, the long jump, Lewis won with relative ease….but his approach to winning this event stoked controversy….even as knowledgeable observers agreed his approach was the correct one….since Lewis still had heats and finals in the 200 m and the 4 × 100 m relay to compete in….he chose to take as few jumps as necessary to win the event. He risked injury in the cool conditions of the day if he over-extended himself….as his ultimate goal to win four golds might be at risk. His first jump at 8.54 m (28 ft 0 in) was….and he knew it….was sufficient to win the event….and although he took one more jump….which was a foul….then passed his remaining four allotted jumps….as he won gold….with silver medalist Gary Honey of Australia’s best jump was 8.24 m (27 ft 014 in)….almost a whole foot short of Lewis’ first jump.  However, the public was generally unaware of the intricacies of the sport….and had been repeatedly told by the media of Lewis’ quest to surpass Bob Beamon’s legendary long jump record of 8.90 m (29 ft 214 in)….as Lewis himself had often stated it was a goal of his to surpass the mark. A television advertisement with Beamon appeared before the final….featuring the record-holder saying, “I hope you make it, kid.”  So, when Lewis decided not to make any more attempts to try to break the record, he was roundly booed. When asked about those boos, Lewis said, “I was shocked at first. But after I thought about it, I realized that they were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that’s flattering”.  His third gold medal came in the 200 m, where he won in a time of 19.80 seconds….a new Olympic record and the third fastest time in history. Finally, he won his fourth gold when the 4 × 100 m relay team he anchored finished in a time of 37.83 s, a new world record.

Although Lewis had achieved what he had set out to do by matching Jesse Owens’ feat of winning four gold medals at a single Olympic Games….he did not win the lucrative endorsement deals which he had expected. The long jump controversy was one reason….and his self-congratulatory conduct did not impress several other track stars….”He rubs it in too much” said Edwin Moses….twice the Olympic gold medalist in the 400 m hurdles. “A little humility is in order. That’s what Carl lacks.” Further, Lewis’ agent Joe Douglas compared him to pop star Michael Jackson….a comparison which did not go over well. Douglas said he was inaccurately quoted….but the impression that Lewis was aloof and egotistical was firmly planted in the public’s perception by the end of the 1984 Olympic Games. Additionally, rumors at the time that Lewis was gay circulated….and though Lewis denied the rumors….they probably hurt his marketability as well….as Lewis’ look at the Games with his flattop haircut and flamboyant clothing….added fuel to the reports. “It doesn’t matter what Carl Lewis’s sexuality is,” high jumper Dwight Stones said….”Madison Avenue perceives him as homosexual.”  Coca-Cola had offered a lucrative deal to Lewis before the Olympics….but Lewis and Douglas turned it down, confident that Lewis would be worth more after the Olympics. But Coca-Cola rescinded the offer after the Games. Nike had Lewis under contract for several years already, despite questions about how it affected his amateur status, and he was appearing in Nike television advertisements, in print, and on billboards. After the Games and faced with Lewis’ new negative image, Nike dropped him. “If you’re a male athlete, I think the American public wants you to look macho,” said Don Coleman, a Nike representative. “They started looking for ways to get rid of me,” Lewis said. “Everyone there was so scared and so cynical they did not know what to do.” Lewis and Nike eventually did split, and Lewis signed an endorsement deal with Mizuno.  Lewis himself would lay the blame on some inaccurate reporting, especially the “Carl bashing,” as he put it, typified by a Sports Illustrated article before the Olympics.

At year’s end, Lewis was again awarded the top rankings in the 100 m and the long jump and was additionally ranked number one in the 200 m….and for the third year in a row…. he was awarded the Athlete of the Year title by Track & Field News.  The Chicago Bulls drafted Lewis in the 1984 NBA Draft as the 208th overall pick, although he had played neither high school nor college basketball. Lewis never played in the NBA.  A poll on the NBA’s website ranked Lewis second to Lusia Harris, the only woman to be drafted by the NBA, as the most unusual pick in the history of the NBA Draft. Ron Weiss, the head west coast scout of the Bulls, and Ken Passon, the assistant West Coast scout, recommended Lewis because he was the best athlete available. Similarly, though he did not play football in college, Lewis was drafted as a wide receiver in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He never played in the NFL.

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