Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long jumper who topped the world rankings in the 100 m, 200 m and long jump events frequently from 1981 to the early 1990s, was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News in 1982, 1983 and 1984, and set world records in the 100 m, 4 x 100 m and 4 x 200 m relays. His world record in the indoor long jump has stood since 1984. His 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10 years is one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks.
His lifetime accomplishments have led to numerous accolades, including being voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee and being named "Olympian of the Century" by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated. He also helped transform track and field from its nominal amateur status to its current professional status, thus enabling athletes to have more lucrative and longer-lasting careers. In 2003 revelations of failed drug tests by Lewis before the 1988 Seoul Olympics put the validity of his achievements into question.
At age 13, Lewis started to compete in the long jump, and while attending Willingboro High School, he emerged as a promising athlete. As a junior, he was one of the top long jumpers in New Jersey, and by his senior year he was one of the top long jumpers in the world. Many colleges tried to recruit him, and he chose to enroll at the University of Houston where Tom Tellez was coach. Tellez would remain Lewis’ coach for his entire career. Days after graduating from high school in 1979, Lewis broke the high school long jump record with a leap of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in).
Lewis immediately decided to make a living off his athletic abilities, even though track and field was nominally an amateur sport. Upon meeting Tellez for the first time after arriving at the University of Houston in the fall of 1979, Lewis said, “I want to be a millionaire and I don’t ever want a real job.” At year’s end, Lewis achieved his first world ranking as tabulated by Track and Field News, an American publication and self-described “Bible of the Sport.” He was 5th in the world in the long jump. (All subsequent ranking references are according to Track and Field News.)
Lewis qualified for the American team for the 1980 Olympics in the long jump and as a member of the 4 x 100 m relay team. Though his focus was on the long jump, he was now starting to emerge as a sprint talent. The Olympic boycott meant that Lewis did not compete in Moscow. At year’s end, Lewis was ranked 6th in the world in the long jump and 7th in the 100 m.
At the start of 1981, Lewis’ best legal long jump was his high school record from 1979. On June 20, Lewis improved his personal best by almost half a meter by leaping 8.62 m (28 ft 3 in) at the TAC Championships while still a teenager. The jump made Lewis the number two long jumper in history, behind only Bob Beamon, and holder of the low-altitude record.
While marks set at the thinner air of high altitude are eligible for world records, some purists feel that there is some “taint” to the assistance that altitude gives to athletes. Lewis was determined to set his records at sea level venues to avoid this “taint.” In response to a question about him skipping a 1982 long jump competition at altitude, he said, “I want the record and I plan to get it, but not at altitude. I don’t want that ‘(A)’ [for altitude] after the mark.” When he gained prominence in the early 1980s, all the extant men’s sprint records and the long jump record had been set at the high altitude of Mexico City.
Also in 1981, Lewis became the fastest 100 m sprinter in the world. His relatively modest best from 1979 (10.67 s) improved to a world-class 10.21 the next year. But 1981 saw him run 10.00 s at the Southwest Conference Championships in Dallas on May 16, a time that was the third-fastest in history and stood as the low-altitude record. For the first time, Lewis was ranked number one in the world, in both the 100 m and the long jump. He won his first of six National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles for the University of Houston and won his first national titles in the 100 m and long jump. Additionally, he won the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States. His loss to Larry Myricks at the TAC Indoor Championships in February would stand as his last loss in the long jump for more than a decade.
Since it was rare for an athlete to compete in and dominate both a track and a field event, comparisons were made to Jesse Owens, who dominated sprint and long jump events in the 1930s.
In 1982, Lewis continued his dominance, and for the first time, it seemed someone might challenge Bob Beamon’s world record of 8.90 m in the long jump set at the 1968 Olympics, a mark often described as one of the greatest athletic achievements ever. Before Lewis, 28 feet [8.53 m] had been exceeded on two occasions by two people: Beamon and 1980 Olympic champion Lutz Dombrowski. During 1982, Lewis cleared 8.53 m five times outdoors, twice more indoors, going as far as 8.76 m (28 ft 9 in) at Indianapolis on July 24. He also ran 10.00 s in the 100 m, the world’s fastest time, matching his low-altitude record from 1981. [ibid, p. 20] He achieved his 10.00 s clocking the same weekend he leapt 8.61 m twice, and the day he recorded his new low-altitude record 8.76 m at Indianapolis, he had three fouls with his toe barely over the board, two of which seemed to exceed Beamon’s record, the third which several observers said reached 30 ft (about 9.15 m). Some claim that Lewis should have been credited with setting a world record that day as track officials misinterpreted rules, declaring his fourth jump to be a foul when it should have been measured. It was that jump that some observers said exceeded 30 feet.
He repeated his number one ranking in the 100 m and long jump, and ranked number six in the 200 m. Additionally, he was named Athlete of the Year by Track and Field News. From 1981 until 1992, Lewis topped the 100 m ranking six times (seven if Ben Johnson's 1987 top ranking is ignored), and ranked no lower than third. His dominance in the long jump was even greater, as he topped the rankings nine times during the same period, and ranked second in the other years.
At the World Championships, Lewis’ chief rival in the long jump was predicted to be the man who last beat him: Larry Myricks. But though Myricks had joined Lewis in surpassing 28 feet [8.53 m] the year before, he failed to qualify for the American team, and Lewis won at Helsinki with relative ease. His winning leap of 8.55 m defeated silver medalist Jason Grimes by 26 cm.
He also won the 100 m with relative ease. There, Calvin Smith who had earlier that year set a new world record in the 100 m at altitude with a 9.93 s performance, was soundly beaten by Lewis 10.07 s to 10.21 s. Smith won the 200 m title, an event which Lewis had not entered, but even there he was partly in Lewis’ shadow as Lewis had set an American record in that event earlier that year. He won the 200 m June 19 at the TAC/Mobil Championships in 19.75 s, the second-fastest time in history and the low-altitude record, only 0.03 s behind Pietro Mennea’s 1979 mark. Observers here noted that Lewis probably could have broken the world record if he didn't ease off in the final metres to raise his arms in celebration. Finally, Lewis ran the anchor in the 4 x 100 m relay, winning in 37.86 s, a new world record and the first in Lewis’ career.
Lewis’ year-best performances in the 100 m and long jump were not at the World Championships, but at other meets. He became the first person to run a sub-10 second 100 m at low-altitude with a 9.97 s clocking at Modesto May 14. His gold at the World Championships and his other fast times earned him the number one ranking in the world that year, despite Calvin Smith’s world record. At the TAC Championships on June 19, he set a new low-altitude record in the long jump, 8.79 m, and earned the world number one ranking in that event. He was ranked number two in the 200 m despite his low-altitude record of 19.75 s, as Smith had won gold at Helsinki and titles won usually outweigh marks set for the rankers at Track and Field News. Lewis was again named Athlete of the Year again by the magazine.
Lewis and agent Joe Douglas, founder and manager of the Santa Monica Track Club of which Lewis was a member, frequently discussed his wish to match Jesse Owens' feat of winning four gold medals at a single Olympic Games and to “cash in” afterward with the lucrative endorsement deals which surely would follow. As it turned out, his first goal would prove to be far easier accomplished than his latter goal, at least in America.
Lewis started his quest to match Owens with a convincing win in the 100 m, running 9.99 s to handily defeat his nearest competitor, fellow American Sam Graddy, by .20 s. 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 x 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, and his ultimate goal to win four golds might be at risk. His first jump at 8.54 m was, he knew, sufficient to win the event. He took one more jump, a foul, then passed his remaining four allotted jumps. He handily won gold, as silver medalist Gary Honey of Australia's best jump was 8.24 m. But 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. Lewis himself had often stated it was a goal of his to surpass the mark. A television ad 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 again won handily in a time of 19.80 s, a new Olympic record. And finally, he won his fourth gold when the 4 x 100 m relay team he anchored finished in a time of 37.83 s, a new world record eclipsing the record he helped set the year before at the World Championships.
Lewis had achieved what he had set out to do. He had matched Jesse Owens’ legendary feat of winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, and he had done so with relative ease. However, Lewis had also expected to win lucrative endorsement deals, but few if any were forthcoming in America. The long jump controversy was one reason. And, Lewis’ self-congratulatory conduct did not impress several other track stars. "He rubs it in too much," said Edwin Moses, twice 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, rumours that Lewis was a homosexual circulated, and though Lewis denied the rumours, it probably hurt his marketability as well. Lewis’ look at the Games, with a flat-top haircut and flamboyant clothing, added fuel to the reports. "It doesn't matter what Carl Lewis' sexuality is," high jumper Dwight Stones said. "Madison Avenue perceives him as homosexual. Coke had offered a lucrative deal to Lewis before the Olympics, an offer Lewis and Douglas turned down, confident he’d be worth more after the Olympics. But Coke 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 on Nike television ads, 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 didn't know what to do." 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 ranks 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 and Field News.
Carl Lewis was drafted in the 10th round of the 1984 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls (the draft where the Bulls selected Michael Jordan with the number 3 pick). He never played a game in the NBA. He was also drafted in the 12th round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver. He was never signed.
To focus on his strongest event, the long jump, Lewis skipped the 200 m and made sure to take all his attempts. This was not to answer critics from the 1984 long jump controversy; this was because history’s second 29 ft long-jumper was in the field. Robert Emmiyan had leaped 8.86 m (29 ft 1 in) at altitude in May, just 4 cm short of Bob Beamon’s record. But Emmiyan's best was 8.53 m leap that day, second to Lewis' 8.67 m. Lewis cleared 8.60 m four times. In the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis anchored the gold-medal team to time of 37.90 s, the third-fastest of all time.
The event which was most talked about and which caused the most drama was the 100 m final. Johnson had run under 10.00 s three times that year before Rome, while Lewis had not managed to get under the 10.00 s barrier at all. But Lewis looked strong in the heats of the 100 m, setting a Championship record in the semi-final while running into a wind with a 10.03 s effort. In the final, however, Johnson won with a time which stunned observers: 9.83 s, a new world record. Lewis, second with 9.93 s, had tied the existing world record, but that was insufficient.
While Johnson basked in the glory of his achievement, Lewis started to explain away his defeat. He first claimed that Johnson had false-started, then he alluded to a stomach virus which had weakened him, and finally, without naming names, said “There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don’t think they are doing it without drugs.” He added, “I could run 9.8 or faster in the 100 if I could jump into drugs right away.” This was the start of Lewis’ calling on the sport of track and field to be cleaned up in terms of the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Cynics noted that the problem had been in the sport for many years, and it only become a cause for Lewis once he was actually defeated. In response to the accusations, Johnson replied "When Carl Lewis was winning everything, I never said a word against him. And when the next guy comes along and beats me, I won’t complain about that either".
The defeat of Johnson shortly before the Olympics was part of a year-long grudge match between the two athletes. The Johnson camp had angrily defended their star against Lewis' drug accusations, but they also scrambled to prepare Johnson after he suffered a hamstring injury during the indoor season. When Lewis defeated Johnson in their first meeting since Rome’s World Championships, the drama for the Olympics only heightened. Lewis had run 9.93 s, the same time he ran when finishing second to Johnson the previous year. Johnson ran 10.00 s, indicating he was recovering from his injury, but not answering the question whether he’d be ready for the Olympic final a bit more than a month away.
The 100 m final at the 1988 Olympics was one of the most-hyped sports stories of the year; its dramatic outcome would rank as one of the top sports stories of the century, according to some. Johnson won in 9.79 s, a new world record, while Lewis set a new American record with 9.92 s. Three days later, Johnson tested positive for steroids, his medal was taken away and Lewis was awarded gold and credited with a new Olympic record.
In the long jump, Robert Emmiyan withdrew from the competition citing an injury, and Lewis’ main challengers were rising American long jump star Mike Powell and long-time rival Larry Myricks. Lewis leapt 8.72 m, a low-altitude Olympic best, and none of his competitors could match it. The Americans swept the medals in the event for the first time in 84 years. [ibid, p. 41] In the 200 m, Lewis dipped under his Olympic record from 1984, running 19.79 s, but did so in second place to Joe DeLoach, who claimed the new record and Olympic gold in 19.75 s. [ibid, p. 13] In the final event he entered, the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis never made it to the track as the Americans fumbled an exchange in a heat and were disqualified. [ibid, p. 32]
A subsequent honour would follow: Lewis eventually was credited with the 100 m world record for the 9.92 s he ran in Seoul. Though his 9.79 s time was disqualified, Johnson's world record from the 1987 World Championships still stood until he admitted to long-term steroid use while under oath during a 1989 inquiry, after that he was stripped of his gold medal and world record from that 1987 performance and Lewis was deemed the world record holder for his 1988 Olympic performance. Lewis was also deemed to have tied the then existing world record (9.93 s) for his 1987 World Championship performance, and again at the Zürich meet where he defeated Johnson. From January 1, 1990, Lewis was the world record holder in the 100 m. The record did not last long, as fellow American Leroy Burrell ran 9.90 s on June 14, 1991 to break Lewis' mark. Lewis also lost his ranking as number one sprinter in 1989 and 1990 though still remaining undefeated in the long jump.
The 1991 World Championships are perhaps best remembered for the long jump final, considered by some to have been one of greatest competitions ever in any sport.
Lewis was up against his main rival of the last few years, Mike Powell, the silver medalist in the event from the 1988 Olympics and the top-ranked long jumper of 1990. Lewis had at that point not lost a long jump competition in a decade, winning 65 consecutive meets. Powell had been unable to defeat Lewis, despite sometimes putting in jumps near world-record territory, only to see them ruled fouls. Or, as with other competitors such as Larry Myricks, putting in leaps which Lewis himself had only rarely surpassed, only to see Lewis surpass them on his next or final attempt. Lewis's first jump was 8.68 m (28 feet, 5 ¾ inches), a World Championship record, and a mark bested by only three others beside Lewis all-time. Powell, jumping first, had faltered in the first round, but jumped 8.54 m to claim second place in the second round. Myricks was also in the competition, but he didn’t challenge the leaders.
Lewis jumped 8.83 m (28-11½), a wind-aided leap, in the third round, a mark which would have won every long jump competition in history save two. Powell responded with a long foul, estimated to be around 8.80 m. Lewis' next jump made history: The first leap ever beyond Bob Beamon's record. The wind gauge indicated that it was a wind-aided jump, so it could not be considered a record, but it would still count in the competition. 8.91 m (29-2¾) was the greatest leap ever under all conditions.
In the fifth round, Powell responded in kind. This time, his jump was not a foul, and with a wind gauge measurement of 0.3 m/s, well within the legal allowable for a record. His jump was measured as 8.95 m (29-4½), a new world record, eclipsing the 23-year-old mark set by Bob Beamon.
Lewis still had two jumps left, though he was now no longer chasing Beamon, but Powell. He leaped 8.87 m (29-1¼), which was a new personal best under legal wind conditions, and a final jump of 8.84 m (29-0). He thus lost his first long jump competition in a decade. Powell's 8.95 m and Lewis' final two jumps still stand as of August 2008 as the top three low-altitude jumps ever.
Lewis’ reaction to what was one of the greatest competitions ever in the sport was to offer only grudging acknowledgment of the achievement of Powell. "He just did it," Lewis said of Powell's winning jump. "It was that close, and it was the best of his life, and he may never do it again. Powell did jump as far or farther on two subsequent occasions, though both were wind-aided jumps at altitude: 8.99 m in 1992 and 8.95 m in 1994. Lewis' best subsequent results were two wind-aided leaps at 8.72 m, and a 8.68 m under legal conditions while in the qualifying rounds at the Barcelona Olympics.
In reference to his efforts at the 1991 World Championships, Lewis said, “This has been the greatest meet that I’ve ever had.” Track and Field News was prepared to go even further than that, suggesting that after these Championships, “It had become hard to argue that he is not the greatest athlete ever to set foot on track or field.”
Lewis credits his outstanding 1991 results in part to the vegan diet he adopted in 1990.
At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Lewis jumped 8.67 m in the first round of the long jump, beating Powell who did a final-round 8.64 m. In the 4 x 100 m relay, Lewis anchored another world record, in 37.40 s, a time which stood for 16 years. He covered the final leg in 8.85 seconds, the fastest officially recorded anchor leg ever until surpassed by Asafa Powell in 2007 with 8.84.
Lewis competed at the 4th World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993, but finished fourth in the 100 m, and did not compete in the long jump. He did, however, earn his first World Championship medal in the 200 m, a bronze with his 19.99 s performance. That medal would prove to be his final Olympic or World Championship medal in a running event. Injuries kept Lewis largely sidelined for next few years, then he made a comeback for the 1996 season.
Controversy struck when as Track and Field News put it, “Lewis’ pissy attitude in the whole relay hoo-hah a few days later served only to take the luster off his final gold.”
After Lewis’ unexpected long jump gold, it was noted by observers that he could become the athlete with the most Olympic gold medals if he entered the 4 x 100 m relay team. Any member of the American Olympic men’s track team could be used, even if he never ran the event. Lewis said, “If they asked me, I’d run it in a second. But they haven’t asked me to run it.” He further suggested on Larry King Live that viewers phone the United States Olympic Committee to weigh in on the situation. Lewis had skipped the mandatory relay training camp and demanded to run the anchor leg, which added to the debate. The final decision was to not add Lewis to the team. Olympic team coach Erv Hunt said, “The basis of their [the relay team’s] opinion was ‘We want to run, we worked our butts off and we deserve to be here.’” [ibid, p. 31] The American relay team finished second to Canada, the first time an American 4 x 100 m men’s relay team was defeated in an Olympic final, if the 1960 Rome Olympics disqualification is not counted. Since the Canadian team was anchored by Donovan Bailey, who days earlier set a world record in the 100 m, and the Canadians ran the fastest time ever recorded in America, some observers felt the result would not have been any different with Lewis on the team. “Amid the American hype, Canada was indeed being overlooked, despite having Worlds silver medalist Bruny Surin to back up the new WR holder Bailey,” said Track and Field News. [ibid., p. 30] But the controversy undoubtedly distracted the team.
Lewis retired from the sport in 1997.
In 1999, he was voted "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee, elected "World Athlete of the Century" by the International Association of Athletics Federations and named "Olympian of the Century" by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated.
It was revealed that Lewis tested positive three times before the 1988 Olympics for pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine, banned stimulants and bronchiodilators also found in cold medication, and had been banned from the Seoul Olympics and from competition for six months. The USOC accepted his claim of inadvertent use and overturned the decision. Fellow Santa Monica Track Club teammates Joe DeLoach and Floyd Heard were also found to have the same banned stimulants in their systems, and were cleared to compete for the same reason.
The positive results occurred at the Olympic Trials in July 1988 where athletes were required to declare on the drug-testing forms "over-the-counter medication, prescription drugs and any other substances you have taken by mouth, injection or by suppository."
"Carl did nothing wrong. There was never intent. He was never told, you violated the rules," said Martin D. Singer, Lewis' lawyer, who also said that Lewis had inadvertently taken the banned stimulants in an over-the-counter herbal remedy. "The only thing I can say is I think it's unfortunate what Wade Exum is trying to do," said Lewis. "I don't know what people are trying to make out of nothing because everyone was treated the same, so what are we talking about? I don't get it.
The World Anti-Doping Agency's chairman, Dick Pound, dismissed the defence of "no intent", saying that in some instances an "automatic forgiveness" was given to athletes by the US officials. Dick Pound commented that "It's got to be pretty embarrassing to the USOC, to have their secretary-general writing in the letter, where he advises an athlete of a positive A sample, 'I have to send you this, but we already decided this was inadvertent.' That whole process turned into a joke."
Former athletes and officials came out against the USOC cover-up. "For so many years I lived it. I knew this was going on, but there's absolutely nothing you can do as an athlete. You have to believe governing bodies are doing what they are supposed to do. And it is obvious they did not", said former American sprint queen and 1984 Olympic champion, Evelyn Ashford.