Carl Lewis was appropriately named Olympian of the Century. He won nine gold medals and one silver over four Olympic games from 1984-1996. No one in history has approached that level of dominance over that length of time in a sport as demanding as track and field. In context, he matched Jesse Owens performance in the 36′ Games then come back and won another five gold medals and one silver over the next three Games. Footnote for Owens, a small global tiff commonly referred to as World War 2 prevented him from competing in the Olympics again. Footnote for Lewis, he produced arguably the worst live rendition of the National Anthem in the history of singing.
Carl Lewis, though awarded the gold medal, lost the biggest race of his life, the 100 meter final in the 1988 Olympics. The race was the most anticipated event of the Games pitting Lewis and his Olympic pedigree against Ben Johnson, a Jamaican ex-pat running under the Canadian flag. Johnson won the bronze medal in the 1984 games, but came on thereafter beating Lewis four times in 1987 including the World Championships. Lewis beat Johnson before the Olympics in 1988, and brazenly declared he would never lose to him again. It was as hostile as a rivalry could be between two men running in parallel lanes without making physical contact.
Johnson was short, powerful like a running back, and exploded from the blocks. Lewis was tall, lean, and dominated the second 50 meters with his majestic stride. Johnson would likely lead from the blocks and the drama would be whether Lewis could catch and pass him. Their was palpable electricity in my living room, the stadium must have been so a hundred fold.
Lewis and Johnson got in the blocks. The gun fired. Johnson burst into the lead with Lewis following. As the second 50 meters unfolded, Lewis did not close the gap. 10 meters from the tape, Johnson thrust a triumphant fist in the air.
9.79. A world record. It was breathtaking, unfathomable, defiant and unforgettable. It exceeded all expectations, and redefined the possibilities of human performance. It was glorious.
Days, weeks, months, hell maybe a year later as I remember that race better than anything that followed, Ben Johnson would fail a drug test, and appeal, and ultimately be stripped of the gold medal, the record, and his fame became infamy. Lewis would be awarded the gold medal, and enhance his Olympic credentials with more medals in 92 and 96.
From that race on, any stunning performance, Bolt in Beijing or Ye in London, is met with equal measures of suspicion and admiration. In that way, it is all tainted, but what a spectacle it is.
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