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Its been 20 years since ‘King Carl’ Lewis, now 52, walked into the racing sunset. On a rare visit to India, Lewis talks about keeping alive the will to race. 

Setting the pace

Gaurav Kalra

TCS World 10K Bangalore Carl LewisWhen a smile settles on his face, it has a childlike joy to it. He is 52 and the last of his nine Olympic gold medals came in 1996. It is nearly 20 years since he walked into the racing sunset, but the aura hasn’t withered. The legendary athlete, America’s Carl Lewis, hasn’t lost any of his skills to race ahead. With the wind behind his back, he is willing to talk about any topic under the sun.

On a rare visit to India as an event ambassador for the TCS World 10K Bangalore (the annual 10-kilometer road race held in the city) this year, the icon reminisced about India in 1989 and India today. In 1989, he had raced in New Delhi as the reigning Olympic 100-meter champion. “When I came here in 1989, there was no way 25,000 runners would have participated in a race,such as this. Running is the most simplistic thing because everyone does it, and it doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow. Every kid ever born raced someone,” he says.

But, of course, Lewis raced faster and jumped higher than everyone else. Over the course of his career, he was defined not merely by his jaw-dropping feats—10 Olympic medals, including nine gold, and 10 world championship medals including 8 gold—but by his astounding longevity. Between 1983 and 1996, the incredible track and field athlete won at least one gold medal at every World Championship and Olympic Games. “When I was at my last Olympics, I remember standing on the runway with two long jump attempts down and one more to go, I was probably in the 17th place. I was on the track thinking: ‘You know I have eight gold medals but if I flame out today, then everyone is going to say, oh my god he is too old, he should have quit, he shouldn’t have been here,’” he recalls.

What followed was an unforgettable moment in sports history. The 35-year-old leapt 8.5 meters to clinch his fourth straight Olympic long jump gold in 1996 and became the third man in history, after Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and American discus thrower Al Oerter, to win the same individual event four times.

A year later, Lewis retired. In 1999, the International Olympic Committee named him “Sportsman of the Century”, he was elected “World Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations, and Sports Illustrated magazine named him the “Olympian of the Century”. As Indian sports takes baby steps towards making a name in international athletics, Lewis believes the breakthrough moment isn’t far. “You have to believe. This is a country of over a billion people, there has to be a fast person, there has to be a jumper, there has be a great thrower, there has to be a great distance runner.”

At the last two Olympics, India won nine medals, including a first individual gold, and Lewis believes that more success is guaranteed. “Whenever you have success, it breeds success. There is a little Indian child that watched the success in 2012 that will be greatin 2020. We don’t know who they are, but they are inspired by that performance,” he feels. May be the child was further inspired by Lewis’ visit.

A constant lament in India is the lack of a sporting culture that inhibits talented kids. Lewis says one needs to lower the burden of expectations. His formula is simple. “Our objective should be that those young people, who get involved in sports, stay in it long enough to find out if they are any good at it. If not, they will at least be better that way. I think that we sometimes over-emphasize the future. The emphasis should always be on having fun.”

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Such an attitude will reflect in an enhancement of sporting ethics. In fact, the American runner has always been alert to the menace of doping in sports. While the world applauded the tiny Caribbean nation of Jamaica for producing an assembly line of world-class printers, Lewis raised red flags over the country’s anti-doping program, questioning its effectiveness.

He was criticized the world over for his negative comments but, in recent months, he was proved correct. Prominent Jamaican athletes like the former 100-meter world record holder Asafa Powell and three-time Olympic medal winner Sherone Simpson were
banned for doping offences. The phenomenal sprinter feels a sense of validation and adds that these incidents don’t just “take the sheen off Jamaica’s recent achievements but also make people not believe all the performances.

When you have a country that did not do any random testing (for) six months leadingup to the last Olympics, and then had tremendous games, it does hurt the credibility of the entire anti-doping process.”Carl Lewis

It was due to this that the athlete finds himself at loggerheads with his heir apparent, Usain Bolt. After clinching his sixth Olympic gold at London in 2012, Bolt said he had “lost all respect” for Lewis, who was merely “seeking attention” by questioning the validity of performances by Jamaican athletes. When reminded of that barb, Lewis chuckles: “Basically, I don’t really know him.

He needs to back up now, go watch a Michael Jackson video about how he used to moonwalk, maybe you do need to respect me a little bit more now because what I said was true. He and anyone else can bash me until the end of time, and it doesn’t really matter.”

The media has gleefully lapped up Lewis’ high-octane clash with Bolt over the last few years. Having won six Olympic and eight World Championship gold medals, Bolt unhesitatingly described himself as a “legend”. It’s a claim that amuses Lewis: “I don’t believe in talking like that because I never have. Can you imagine LeBron James (a professional basket ball player) saying, ‘I am a legend?’ He wouldn’t do it, because he respects the sport and respects the other athletes.

What I love about our sport is that legendary status is earned over time and it’s not something that is given.”

An unflinching supporter of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama, Lewis is a keen observer of the churn in American politics and society. For example, the racist comment made by Donald Sterling, the owner of NBA (basketball) franchise Los Angeles Clippers, didn’t surprise Lewis. He attributes racism in America to the “fear of losing positions and power”. He argues the issue isn’t “just about race, but also about gender and orientation.”

When you are Carl Lewis, time is always at a premium. Inevitably, his minders remind him that he has things to do and this conversation needs to end. So “King Carl”, as he came to be called, signs off with a promise to return to India. “Everyone talks about the heat here but I love it,” he chuckles in his endearing childlike way, and sprints ahead to yet another time, another place.

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