A Long Leap Of Faith

The best ancient Greek jumper reached 23 feet, not enough to qualify today.

Maybe it's a blessing that Carl Lewis won't be running a race in the Olympics, that he lost in the American Trials. Not for fans, it isn't good, of course. Not for NBC. Not for the sport. Not for posterity. But maybe it really is best for The World's Fastest Human, he who would also be the world's longest jumper.

It may not be easy for Lewis, though-just jumping. All his life, he's never been content only to be in one event--not even only to be the star. He must be altogether involved on and off the track, in control, in everything, into everything. "The Commissioner of Track" is what those he's nettled call him behind his back, facetiously. "I know," Lewis says. "My one great problem in life is that it's hard for me to get others to share the same enthusiasm I do."

But it has ever been thus. When Carl Lewis was a boy growing up in Willingboro, N.J., he saw a warm and comforting suburban world all around him. There were two older brothers and a baby sister, two caring parents who were schoolteachers; truly, the Lewises lived at the corner of Ozzie & Harriet Lane and Huxtable Street. Carl went to school and church and dance class, and he ran and jumped. But even that wasn't enough. So he went out one day and created a whole track meet for himself and his pals. Most kids would have called it the Willingboro Meet or maybe the New Jersey Meet. Young Carl called it, grandly: the Championship of America Meet. And now he had track as tidy and controlled in his neat life as everything else.

About all that has changed these grownup days is that the one thing in his life Lewis hasn't had to create is his own track meet. The people who already own those plead with big Carl to come over to their neighborhood, to run and jump for $100,000. But everything else he's reformed, constructing an adult version of what he had in that childhood bliss of New Jersey. First, he's invented his own team, bringing friends to Houston to form the sprint arm of the Santa Monica Track Club. With many of the same buddies he put together his own company, Sports Style, with Lewis designing his own fashions. His own blood family remains important to his life, but he has created a second one, with a coach and manager coming to mean much of what his own late father was to him. Lewis has even tried to shape and correct the whole damn sport of track-publicly decrying drugs when everyone else was silent, working to make it an honest profession, infuriating most everybody. The Commissioner. Runs and jumps some too.

Much of Lewis's prominence in track-his power as much as his box office--stems from the simple fact that he didn't go away. Promoters and self-anointed Olympic idealists weren't used to this; they were accustomed to pliant boys and girls who couldn't afford to train much past college. Especially was this true of sprinters, who must be so finely tuned. Lewis has won six Olympic golds, and seven at the World Championships, and notwithstanding his curiously desultory performance at the Olympic Trials late in June, he is still the fastest man ever to run the 100 meters, the second fastest in the 200 and the third longest ever to jump.

Maybe 30 years old has always been the best age for running fast; it was just that nobody had the serious empirical evidence. Even athletes in approved professional sports used to hang it up much earlier. Baseball players could make almost as much working in the hardware store back home year-round as they could taking fill-in winter work, then getting in shape to play ball and taking long, hot train rides in July to St. Louis. Within the last year, Lewis has been offered as much as $300,000 to perform. He already talks of competing in '96 at the Atlanta Games. The Olympic ideal now is to last another Olympics.

So, typically, there was ubiquitous Carl, everlasting Carl, barely a half hour before he helped set a world relay record this spring in Philadelphia, outside the stadium, fussing with the displays at the Sports Style concession stand. Or in New Orleans at the Olympic Trials, even as he was failing in both the 100 and 200, Lewis seemed to spend much of his spare time in his hotel room, administering, fussing with the new team uniforms, worrying about his teammates, tending to them even as they defeated him. He is so used to multiple events, the layered life, that, incredibly, as he approached the end of the 100 meters and saw he had no chance, he blithely recalls, "I adjusted in the last second, so before I crossed the finish line I was already focusing on the long jump."

Few people have any concept of how difficult it is even to try to both run and jump at world-class levels. And to pull it off, to be the best at both, is downright da Vincian. But Lewis has never been troubled by doing too much. On the contrary: it's the ultimate game. You take on everything, then you still try and go it one more. "Success always came so easy for me," he says, "Everything was so certain with me that I have to go make up an uncertainty so I can fear, too."

At long last, though, uncertainty came to Lewis, unawares. He was awful in New Orleans. He did not understand. Has The World's Fastest Human suddenly lost an irretrievable step? Can The Commissioner content himself now with just the one event in Barcelona: jumping? You may not be surprised to learn that Lewis himself expresses no doubts. An allergy that produced a sinus virus that poisoned his whole system was discovered after the Trials. "As bad as I felt in New Orleans," he says, "if I feel all right again in Barcelona, I don't see why I can't jump a foot further than I did last year."

A foot? Carl, that would be the 30. In the Olympics. "Yes," he says, making the fear.

It is especially ironic that it has come to this pass, that everything turns on jumping, because once Lewis started breaking land-speed records, the longjump became almost casual for him. In 1991, for example, he assayed only a dozen jumps all year, while Mike Powell, his closest competitor, ventured more than 100. Virtually all his career, all Lewis really wanted with the long jump was to be done with it-to break Bob Beamon's extraordinary leap of 29' 2 1/2"-top that, and move on to other things, away from the pain, the jarring backaches that come with the crash landings. It was so easy, though. Lewis's coach, Tom Tellez, has always thought the jump was his best event. Even if he never broke Beamon's record, he won 65 meets in a row.

One time, too, he actually did beat the record. But he couldn't be bothered. It was exactly 10 years ago this month in Indianapolis. He sailed out ... out ... out. Many witnesses believe he flew past 30 feet. Lewis, ever honest, thinks it was only in the high 29s.

Anyway, whatever it was, one official cried out that Lewis had fouled on the takeoff. No one else saw it. Lewis should have protested. The tape after the takeoff board, called Plasticine, can be easily checked to see if a spiked shoe marked. But Lewis only shrugged, and they raked the pit, and nobody ever knew for sure. Lewis just figured, what the hell, so what, he'd break it next jump or next week.

Only he never did. There was so much else to concentrate on. As recently as this spring, before the disastrous Trials, Lewis was talking offhand about hoping to break the record sometime before the Olympics, so he wouldn't have to bother with jumping in Barcelona, where he could concentrate on his Fastest Human day job.

And now, there's just the jump, and it wasn't supposed to be this way. But there he stands, waiting--6 feet 2, head shaved now, muscles long and coiled, a body lasered. He is exactly 168 feet from the takeoff, and he breathes and freezes, then fidgets, touching himself here and there, when, suddenly, he lowers his head, and off he goes, straight up, the legs moving perfectly, "turning over," they say, the arms stiff, absolutely perpendicular, chopping like Edward Scissor-hands. "I run inside out," he explains it. Lewis takes precisely 21 strides and hits the board at 23 miles an hour, then pops out for just under a second. That's all, airborne. People always say long jumpers soar. But they don't. Velocity is what provides distance. Height only provides metaphor. Really, Lewis simply ends up running in the air.

Last August 30, in the World Championships at Tokyo, Lewis ran 29' 1 1/2", above the ground, his official best ever (and 29' 2 3/4" with excessive wind), and then he was just lounging there on the grass, figuring maybe he really would quit jumping now, watching almost idly, when suddenly, Powell, Beamonized for an instant, flew out 29' 4 1/2". And just like that, the record belonged to one Mike Powell, and not to the man it had always been destined for.

"Well, there is a Lord," Lewis said to himself. "And he's telling me to get off this grass, because you're not done jumping yet, homey."

No matter what transpires at Barcelona, Lewis is secure in the time of years-whatever the hundredths of seconds may read. He has been the best in history at what he does. Notwithstanding, the attention that his native land has given its speediest son has been more curious and censurious than adoring. Abroad, in Europe and Japan, Carl Lewis is stupendous, deluged on the streets. He made a record once entitled "Break It Up," which nobody in the United States ever heard of, that sold 500,000 copies in Sweden alone. In his America, though, Lewis is the product without honor. As amazing as it is that he set the world sprint record at the age of 30, it's perhaps even more astounding that only this spring was he finally awarded a major general American product endorsement, when Panasonic made him a spokesman for the whole world, including Carl Lewis's provincial homeland.

Actually, before 1983, Lewis was quite popular, the box-office hero U.S. track needed. In 1981 he received the Sullivan Award, which is primarily a popularity contest. But track is a particularly incestuous sport, defensive as it has declined in power and appeal. Its insiders, many of whom have sweep hands for humor, tend to be nice, but anal and nerdy. Don King, who understands the human condition as well as anyone, once told Fred Lebow, the New York City Marathon boss: "The trouble with you, Fred, is you're running a sport where you all love each other." Lewis, though, was so hugely blessed that even he began to test the dearest hearts.

The crux came in 1983 when he irritated the experts by quickly mastering the 200 ("icing on the cake," he characterized it), running so far ahead of the field in the U.S. championships that, beyond himself with joy, he threw up his arms and exulted before he crossed the finish line. That did it. To throw a world record away merely for joy--that was track sacrilege. Plus, it proved that Lewis was "showing up his rivals." Soon, Edwin Moses, the hurdles champion-modest, distinguished, intellectual--was pushed forward as the anti-Lewis, and finally Moses himself spoke: "I think Carl rubs it in too much. A little humility is in order." Not long after, from other precincts, the first rumors about Lewis being a drug user and a homosexual began to surface.

Lewis did not heed the humility police, though. Boldly, he set his cap on winning four golds, as had the sainted Jesse Owens in 1936. To most citizens unfamiliar with this Lewis fellow, this constituted illegal idol-tumbling. Roger Maris and Henry Aaron earned the same opprobrium for daring to eclipse Babe Ruth's home-run records, but Owens was even more of a sensitive target than the Babe. Although Owens was the humble young Negro who had Stuck It To Hitler, when he came back to freedom's shores Owens was forgotten, obliged to scrape out a living as a sideshow freak, racing ponies at state fairs. We had never given Jesse Owens much for being Jesse Owens when he was alive, but now, by God, we were going to make it up to him now that he was dead.

Two devastating articles about Lewis just before the Games-in Sports Illustrated and the L.A. Tim t the tone, portraying him as a poseur, contrived and conceited. Everything he did thereafter at the Games was twisted to fit that model. For some reason, the whole flower of sports journalism was especially put out that Joe Douglas, Lewis's manager, mentioned Carl in the same breath as Michael Jackson. Hah! Worse, Lewis had the audacity to win all four medals in a breeze, without drama or false modesty, using only two quotidian jumps on a cool evening to win that gold.

By the end, ABC didn't even bother to show Lewis winning his fourth gold live. He was Corporate Carl, Carl Lewis Ltd., the Maria Callas of the Cinders. The editor of a major American magazine tossed Lewis away thusly: "I'm not putting any arrogant black fag on my cover." Sports Illustrated chose Moses as Sportsman of the Year. In time, after Nike ditched Lewis for being patently "unmarketable," his only endorsement in the United States was something called Lustrasilk, an African-American hair pomade. Months after the Olympics, David Letterman had a little boy on his show, obviously turned out as Lewis. "What's your name?" "Gimme 20 bucks, and I'll tell you." Brought down the house. When his father, Bill, died in 1987, Carl buried one of his gold medals with him. He might as well have put all four in the casket. Nobody ever lost so much winning so much.

Essentially, Lewis wandered in the wilderness a Biblical seven years, returning to our warm bosoms only last September, when he set the record in the 100 in Tokyo. That was the greatest race ever run by a clutch of human beings-six runners broke 10 seconds; two broke the world record. Perhaps it mattered, as well, that he also lost the long jump to Powell in that same meet. Lewis was revealed at once as magnificent and vulnerable. He was a grand old man. He was, at last, redeemed, forgiven. Then, again, last month, all anybody talked about was how gracious he was in defeat at the Trials.

"It doesn't matter," Lewis says now. "It cost me millions of dollars, but, as a man, it made me."

Lewis is chatting now at a meal. Well, sort of a meal. He has become a consummate vegetarian, and, predictably, he has grown totally involved, a graduate student of digestion. For example, now he offers a long discourse on how the colon works. And predictably, too, most of his teammates have also moved into juicing. "The team is an extension of my personality," Carl says.

The runners of Santa Monica push each other, support each other, the way families are supposed to. Lewis's parents often traveled with him before he had the club. There have been occasions when he has walked away from a meet, risking huge sums of money, unless his teammates were better compensated. "It's never lukewarm with Carl," says Leroy Burrell, his close friend and rival. "It's only hot and cold."

Lewis says: "One coach, one manager, one club. I'm still loyal to my college. I gave Houston its new indoor track. Loyalty matters so much to me. A lot of people would have left their manager after all the trouble I had in '84, but what was Joe's mistake? Only that he cared too much."

None of this gainsays that Lewis is not without vanity. His appearance seems to matter to him no less than his art. He is forever changing his coiffure. He had a nose job. He is a fashion plate, his own designer, a world-class shopper-and all of this has contributed to the sustained speculation about his sexuality. Obviously, this hasn't enhanced Lewis's commercial appeal either.

It all wore on him for too long, and by the fall of 1990, Lewis, needing surgery on his right leg, began to think about quitting. He was approaching his 30th birthday, and Burrell was approaching his times. It seemed so pointless. "Did I really enjoy it?" Lewis asked himself. "Did I really have fun? Has it been worth it?" Then, one evening he attended a banquet honoring Coach Tellez, among a group of successful Hispanics.

When Tellez stood to accept the award, he began to cry. "All I ever wanted was to be a coach and a teacher," Tellez mid, and, quickly, Lewis found himself fighting back tears too. He thought of his father, coach and teacher, gone, and his mother, the same: coach and teacher. And for all his wondrous talent, he felt a little ashamed of himself. "Suddenly," he says, "I knew. I knew that it was all worth it. It was cool."

Within the year, he had jumped further than he ever had and run faster than any man ever had. "Long before, I'd found I had to focus on being an inventor. I always had to think of something that's never been done before. I couldn't just beat somebody. People wanted more than that from me. But now I have age, and that's great, because every time I do something at this age, that's a new invention just by itself."

Things are different since the surprises of the Trials, of course. Now, when he and the guys go over to the track and practice, the rest of them work on running, while Lewis prepares only for jumping. "Maybe it's just as good," he says. "That time in Indianapolis 10 years ago. It was too early. I was too young. I'd have stopped competing in the long jump. Then last year, and I was ready to quit again. But now, now I can become the jumper I was early in my career with the body I have late."

But the rest is unchanged. They all go back to the Sports Style office after practice, where Lewis works on the rest of his life, designing clothes, planning sales. And then he goes home alone to his house. There are two distinctive things to the place: his Rottweilers that greet him and scare the hell out of everybody else, and the crystal that adorns every nook and cranny. This symbolism that surrounds him where he lives is consummate: power and grace together, the dogs straining and the crystal glimmering, measuring him and the rest of his days, the great races he has run and the one great run through the wind that eludes him still.

Lewis races down the runway with the precision of a dancer, legs pumping, arms absolutely stiff, chopping through the air. The speed he achieves as he approaches takeoff gives him such great horizontal velocity that he leaves the board at a modest angle and does not climb as high as other jumpers. (APPROACH: 168 feet covered in precisely 21 strides; TAKEOFF: Leaves board at up to 23mph; FLIGHT: Less than 1 second in air. Kicks twice in order to put himself in proper position for landing; LANDING: 29 ft. 1 1/4 in.: Lewis's best jump to date) (MEREDITH HAMILTON--NEWSWEEK)