Carl Lewis was a man of many talents simply because he wanted to be. Growing up as a long jumper, Lewis’s qualities as a sprinter caught the eye as well. He shot to fame at the 1981 US national championships where he won gold medals in 100m and long jump despite the two events starting at the same time.

But that wasn’t enough for the Alabama-born super athlete. He was taking acting classes and also wanted to be an actor. He felt he was more than just an athlete. In his own words, he was limitless.

Such was his all-round prowess that he was offered the role in a TV series to play Jesse Owens, Lewis’s idol and the man who at the 1936 Berlin Olympics won four gold medals in athletic events.

“If I do a TV series, I want to be the star,” Lewis was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

In 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, he had the chance to emulate Owens in real life if not the reel one. He was drafted in the US team for 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

He won the 100m with ease beating his opponent by 0.2s. He then claimed another gold in the long jump, his strongest event. Lewis’s first jump was 8.52m. Confident it wouldn’t be surpassed, he deliberately fouled in his next jump and aborted his remaining jumps as he wanted to avoid any risk of injuries before the remaining two events.

Lewis was booed for only jumping once, but like he often did in long jump events, he knew he didn’t need too many attempts to reign supreme.

He then won the 200m race, setting a new Olympic record, before completing the quadruple of gold medals in relay where the US team set a new world record.


Long jump winning streak

For all his excellence across the athletics events, long jump remained his favourite event. It allowed him to be different.

“Sprinting is so common. Jumping is more interesting, more difficult, more challenging. And there are so many good sprinters, I would lose now and then. But in the long jump, I can make mistakes and still win,” said Lewis.

And throughout his career, it remained like that. Despite several competitors like Mike Powell whose world-record jump of 8.9m stands to date, Lewis was unmatched at the Olympics.

He somehow found a way to beat his opponents. At the 1998 Games, Lewis jumped 8.72m and no one else could come close to him. He became the first long jump athlete to defend his gold medal a record that stands to date. It was just after he had finished second in the 100m but was awarded gold three days later after the winner tested positive for steroids.

By the time the next Olympics came around in 1992, Lewis wasn’t the undisputed champion in long jump. It was Powell, who by then had smashed the world record and finished ahead of him in the qualifiers. But when it mattered the most, Lewis came up trumps, jumping 8.67m and beating Powell by just three centimetres for a hat-trick of gold medals.

Four years later at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Lewis wasn’t the favourite. He needed all three jumps in the qualifiers to make the cut at the Olympics. In doing so, he set a new record of qualifying for five straight Olympics, the first such feat by an American. But fate was on Lewis’s side, Powell and another favourite Ivan Pedroso struggled with injuries. Lewis could only jump 8.50m but an injury to Powell meant he had to pull out and Lewis claimed an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal in the long jump.

He is the only man to achieve the feat in the discipline and is the most successful athlete in the event. He is only among three athletes in history to win four gold medals in a single discipline.

Most successful athletes in long jump history

Rank Athlete Nation Olympics Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 Carl Lewis United States (USA) 1984–1996 4 0 0 4
2 Ralph Boston United States (USA) 1960–1968 1 1 1 3
3 Myer Prinstein United States (USA) 1900–1904 1 1 0 2
3 Randy Williams United States (USA) 1972–1976 1 1 0 2
5 Arnie Robinson United States (USA) 1972–1976 1 0 1 2
5 Greg Rutherford Great Britain (GBR) 2012–2016 1 0 1 2
7 Mike Powell United States (USA) 1988–1992 0 2 0 2
8 Calvin Bricker Canada (CAN) 1908–1912 0 1 1 2
9 Igor Ter-Ovanesyan Soviet Union (URS) 1960–1964 0 0 2 2
9 Joe Greene United States (USA) 1992–1996 0 0 2 2

Carl Lewis retired a year later after his fourth gold medal in long jump with nine Olympic medals to his name in track and field, a feat matched only by Finland’s long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi.

Most successful athletes in track and field

Rank Name Country Gender Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 Paavo Nurmi Finland M 9 3 0 12
2 Carl Lewis United States M 9 1 0 10
3 Usain Bolt Jamaica M 8 0 0 8
4 Ray Ewry United States M 8 0 0 8
5 Allyson Felix United States F 6 3 0 9

Lewis was named male athlete of the century by the IAAF in 1999 and sportsman of the century by the International Olympic Committee.

But Lewis was never universally popular, for his aloof attitude rankling with rivals and spectators.

His achievements lost some lustre in 2003 when it was revealed that he had failed three tests for small amounts of stimulants at the US Olympic trials for the 1988 Seoul Games, where Canada’s Johnson was vilified for doping and Lewis inherited his gold.

“The climate was different then,” Lewis said later of the stimulants. “Over the years a lot of people will sit around and debate (whether the drug) does something. There really is no pure evidence to show that it does something. It does nothing.”

However, Lewis’s incredible feats across disciplines mean he redefined excellence at the Olympics. There have been few like him and there won’t be many more in the future.


(With AFP inputs)