The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Monday, January 19, 2009

Carl Lewis on Track's Profile

Over the weekend, the Houston Chronicle ran an article on Carl Lewis and his attempts to raise the profile of our sport and his sponsorship of a major high school invitational.

It all sounds so selfless, but for most people who remember him in his prime that was the last way anyone was going to describe him. More likely they'd describe him as aloof, patronizing, and self-centered. In other words, a prima donna.

He still sounds like it, when he took the sports' current stars to task:
Lewis, who never worried about speaking his mind and was outspoken during his career against drug cheats, believes that the track and field athletes are the ones most holding back the sport today.

Instead of running or jumping off to Europe or Asia for big paydays, he says they should be nurturing the sport at the grass-roots level in the United States and vigorously condemning drug cheats.

“Most of the athletes in America are delusional,” Lewis said laughing. “They’re living in a vacuum and pretending that everything is all right. A guy says, ‘I’m the fastest man in the world!’ Well, so what? There’s dozens of guys who are the last man on the bench in the NBA making 10 times your money. Do something to change that.

“Every time an athlete like Marion Jones does what she did, gets caught and sent to jail, more athletes need to be applauding. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for Marion.’ You stand up and say, 'I'm not going to run on a relay team with anybody who has those allegations around them.' Stand and say, 'I only want to be a teammate of somebody who is tested and clean.'

“When I was in Beijing, I told some of those guys, ‘Look I still have endorsement deals with McDonald’s, Visa, Coca-Cola, worldwide brands, Olympic sponsors. They’re not doing business with most of you because they don’t trust you.’ ”
I'm a bit more forgiving of Lewis than a lot of people, probably because he was the hero of track in my age group. But also, I think I understand where Lewis was coming from.

Lewis was flat-out the greatest the sport has ever seen, and he knew it. He thought that people should kiss his ass the same way they did to Pele, Mickey Mantle, Magic Johnson, and Joe Namath because if track's megastar wasn't treated that way then it wasn't a truly professional sport. Well, at least that was part of it. But this was also why he was short with the small-time operations; to him it was like expecting Steve Jobs to cater to Popular Mechanics.

So he's berating the current crop of stars for not acting selfish enough. In the cutthroat capitalist system that is professional sports, to do anything else is to not take yourself seriously.

At the same time, he criticizes them for something he himself did, namely skipping domestic meets in favor of bigger paydays elsewhere. I can understand if Lewis is called a hypocrite for this, but I think there's a difference between what he did and what he's calling people out for. In his day it was assumed that he'd run domestic meets gratis, which he found ridiculous. Due to his efforts (along with those of many others) everything is now pay-to-play. But if the domestic circuit continues to wane, there will be little left for true professionals to compete for.

Besides the superstar attitude, two other things made Lewis less than popular with the press. Those used to dealing with Olympians expected a pliant and inexpensive serf and he led the charge to change all of that. But also, he told people in no uncertain terms that the man who began to beat him regularly was literally doped to the eyeballs. When he was ultimately proven right, of course no one gave him credit for sticking his neck out.

Lewis had a small doping run-in himself: at the 1988 Olympic Trials he tested positive for a stimulant contained in many over-the-counter herbal remedies. He should have been disqualified from that day's event and given a public warning but the USOC swept it under the rug. The stimulant is no longer on the banned list. There are people who say he's just as guilty of doping for that one incident (which may or may not have been inadvertent) as Ben Johnson was for his seven years of willfully injecting anabolic steroids. There are two words for these people: ignoramus and jackass.

No comments: