If you don’t know the name Carl Lewis, your parents will. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics the sprint and long jump specialist entered sporting immortality when he equalled Jesse Owens’ medal tally of four golds via the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump. The year before that he broke the indoor long jump record, posting a distance of 8.79 metres which remains unbroken to this day.
Nearly 40 years after those victories Carl Lewis has nothing left to prove, but that isn’t stopping him. Passionate, controversial and blessed with the fastest legs the world had ever seen, it’s clear when we talk that he has lost none of the intellect or charisma that once made him one of America’s most bankable celebrity athletes. He’s also in mind-bogglingly good shape, thanks to his latest mission to bench press 300 lbs on his 60th birthday next year. Which begs the question, is this fitness regime a personal quest, or is there a constant external pressure to always look as good as the 1980s Carl Lewis?
“You know, the bottom line is that I’ve always lived off my brand. I created the Carl Lewis brand back in the ‘80s and took it into the ‘90s and beyond, I did television, I did radio, everything was based on the brand I built, so - and I’m just being realistic now - there is definitely an expectation on how I present myself. It’s like hearing an old song, you’re transported back to that moment in time. I understand that thought process, so it’s not a matter of looking good, it’s a matter of people seeing me and saying ‘Ah ok, there’s the guy I grew up with’.
Was it easy creating your own brand back then?
Well of course I wanted to be famous and rich, I wanted all that stuff, but the amateur sport wasn’t interested in professionalism and they surely didn’t know how to market a brand. We didn’t even talk about that stuff back then, so I quickly realised if I was going to do it, I would have to do it by myself.
You’re self-taught at branding?
I met this amazing musician called Michael Walden, and through him and his wife I was exposed to the entertainment business. I started seeing what they were doing and I went to the Grammys, and I used those situations as a learning experience. I didn’t know how to brand, I just watched what other people did and asked questions and then it all happened for me. But, you can’t do any of that if you don’t perform. It’s not just winning, it’s knowing how to win, where to win and doing something unique.
Did you set out to be the fastest man on the planet from day one?
I actually found some of it by accident. I didn’t intend to become a sprinter out of High School, that was something that evolved out of the long jump, and I realised I would have some success out of it. The long jump evolved too. I wanted to jump over 8.90 (metres) when I was 17. So I put that challenge to my coach, and he said ‘Ok, we’ve got some work to do, let’s get going’. At the time my personal best was 8.13, and that was far for a 17-year-old, but it was a long way from 8.90. When I was 19 I jumped 8.63, which was getting closer, and I also set the indoor record that year. So I just kept going.
You became the Renaissance man of athletics; the world’s fastest human, the jump specialist, the relay champion - which did you enjoy the most?
I was purely a long jumper that sprinted. I was that way from day one and all the way through, so the choice was easy for me. What makes this whole thing unique was that the long jump, back when I started, honestly it wasn’t that much of an event. But when I started jumping further, other people started, and it evolved, and then people wanted to see records broken, and when that happened they wanted to see me jump more and they wanted to see me run.
You have nine Olympic gold medals. Which do you treasure the most?
It’s kind of a dual thing. You have to start with the first one, because you can’t win nine without winning one, so that first is extremely important. Then I would say the last one, because they both meant something different. The first is the one that got it started but that last one was just amazing. It took a lot of work and I never would have imagined in a million years that I would have been competing at 35. And then I’m right there, in my home stadium, winning. As a matter of fact if the games were not in Atlanta I would not have competed; I wouldn’t have stayed around in athletics if I had to compete somewhere else.
Can you remember how you felt when you equalled Jesse Owens' record at the 1984 Olympics?
It was two things. Number one, relief. Because for a year and a half it was my entire life. And I wasn’t even sure I could do it until the Olympic trials, when for the first time I felt confident. So at the end it was just relief, you know, from being the most famous person in the world and everything is on you - there’s a lot of pressure. But then when I finished I also realised that there is no way in the world I was ever going to be bigger than that, you know, it was never going to happen again.
How did you celebrate? Cold beer and pizza or a night of quiet reflection?
Well it was closer to a night of reflection. I couldn’t really go anywhere at the time, but, bigger than that, I was really tired. If you think about it, I competed over eight days, with one day off in the middle. That meant four 100 metres, four 200 metres, the long jumps and I ran all three relay rounds. So it was 11 races and two days of jumping in eight days. Plus I had the long jump final two hours after I had two rounds of 200 metres, you know, so I was really tired. Nobody has done it since because it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard.
Four years later you found yourself standing next to Ben Johnson who looked absolutely terrifying. Was he intimidating up close?
Well a lot of the athletes knew what was going on, so he didn’t intimidate them, he angered them. But he did affect people, Canada was proud and happy and it was good for them, but we knew what was going on, so the athletes' perspective was different
Are performance enhancing drugs here forever now, do you think?
Yeah, they are here forever, there is no doubt about it, it's part of the culture of how people want to win and be successful. It is what it is, the thing is getting to a place where it's as fair as possible, that’s where we are, and if we try to go the other way, we are crazy. But the big issue is that athletes have not owned up to it enough. It's been easy to complain about the drug problem, but it's hard to put yourself out there and say something.
You were quite outspoken back then. How do you remember yourself, a man who enjoyed controversy or someone who just stuck up for themselves?
I wouldn’t say I was controversial, but I was ahead of my time. I was just trying to do something that people were not ready for. We didn’t talk about branding in the '80s so when I did certain things, people said I was showboating, and I should stay in my lane.
What sort of things?
A lot of the things I did back then, everybody is doing now! Think about it, I always had the hair done, the fashion was part of it, I was talking about social issues, trying to make a change - that’s what we are doing now, only it was 30 years earlier. I understand now, especially more so now that I’m older, that people get comfortable. And it was comfortable back then for people at the top. If you say that amateurism is glorified slavery, which I did, then the people keeping you amateur are not going to be happy. They didn’t see it that way at the time, but I thought they were just trying to keep us down.
So more of a trailblazer then…
Well, calling yourself a trailblazer is kind of weird. I had a clear message and I wanted to make sport more professional, and I wanted it to be big and entertaining. And at the time sports weren’t thinking like that, they were just thinking of playing and having a great game, they weren’t thinking of the entertainment component. I mean, look at the NFL here, they have become number one because that’s exactly what they do.
Were you making good money?
I was making more money (as an amateur) than professional players. And when I was signed by the Dallas Cowboys I made more than their highest paid player! I wasn’t thinking of playing football, but I went because I was making more money than they were.
You didn’t ever actually play for the Cowboys. What was the thinking behind the move?
Ha, well people love speed. Speed is great in every sport. So if you can have someone that fast, and you can teach him how to catch…then we’re good. That’s just what it is.
You’re still an outspoken man. Do you feel you still have a responsibility towards sport, or is it time for a new generation to speak up?
I’ve always understood that if you are in the position, you take the responsibility, so I don’t look at it as a burden or leaving it to others. I think I should always have a voice and try to motivate people to do something, because even now I’m not all that excited about what’s going on. I just see our sport dwindling away, fading financially, culturally and socially. I just don’t see a clear understanding of how they are going to keep that thing going.
In what way?
I mean, right now I think that our sport missed a massive opportunity to get involved with real social change. We did nothing! We had Black Lives Matter, we had the pandemic, and we did nothing. We had stadiums where we could have had testing, and the sport had no clear message around Black Lives Matter or social change. If you’re going to put your name on it, do something about it. Don’t just put your name on a piece of paper and slide it across the table!
Where do you think this apathy comes from?
I think that it comes from the top. The IAAF (International Amateur Athletics Federation) is an old communist-run system because it’s one vote, one country, and when there’s no leadership from the top you have athletes that are fractured, because they all have different groups and management, and there is absolutely no leadership. And even if Sebastian (Coe) wanted to do things differently, he’s hamstrung, because he has to talk to the board and the vast majority have no interest whatsoever in making anything different.
What are your thoughts on Covid and next year’s proposed Olympics?
Covid really scares me, especially for next year. I think one of the great things would be for the sport organisations to get behind vaccines and testing for athletes so the Olympics can be saved, and the public can be saved, that’s a great thing for sports to be able to do. But do you trust most of these federations? If we said we were going to send out 10,000 tests to a country, and said they could distribute them to their athletes, and the people that want to go to the Olympics, do you know what they are going to do? It’s going to go to their families, their cousins, and the athletes get nothing. And that’s the problem, right there. You know, and I know, that if they gave those Covid tests to those federations, then their families, cousins, nephews, nieces and everyone else would get tested, while all the athletes sat around asking 'Where’s my test?' So that’s the problem, nobody says anything.
That’s a pretty bleak picture. Do you see any hope at all?
That's a very fair, but very hard question. There’s always hope. But I don’t see where the hope is coming from. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. Yes there’s hope, but where from? That’s what I don’t see.
Let’s finish on a high. How’s the 300lb bench press challenge coming along?
I have no idea how that’s going to work out, but it's a unique time and I’m enjoying the process and I hope that people can be inspired. I was the fastest man in the world, I was the longest jumper in the world, but I’m nearly 60 years old and you cannot deny that part of it. I’m still human, and I just want to do something that I don’t know whether I can do or not.
That sounds exactly like the time you told your coach at 17 that you wanted to jump 8.90 because you didn’t know if you could or not.
Well you know it’s interesting. About 20 years ago, I just said I really want to do some things I have never done before in my life. I didn’t think of it in the context you’ve just said, but that’s probably exactly where it came from, and what I found was that it isn’t hard finding things to do that you haven’t done before. It just freed you up to do things you said you wouldn’t do. Like if I was in China, and I saw insects on a grill, well before I would not have touched those insects, but now it's like 'Yeah, let me try them'. So instead of creating a challenge, it creates a freedom
Anything you point blank wouldn’t touch?
I don’t know yet, but I’ll be honest with you, I am not a rodent person. So if you want to find something, anything with rodents is going to be difficult. Bugs I can deal with, snakes I don’t like but I can handle them, but I am not a rodent person!