The Tears of Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis at Moment of Peace, London 2012 Olympic Games (Andy Miah/Flickr)

A few weeks ago marked the 30th anniversary of perhaps the greatest track and field duel of all time. On Friday, August 30, 1991, American athletes Carl Lewis and Mike Powell competed in the long jump final at the World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, Japan. Lewis was the prohibitive favorite for the title. A six-time Olympic gold medalist (he would eventually win a total of nine), Lewis had already established his standing as one of the greatest athletes of all time. He was less than a week removed from winning his third world title in the 100 meters, with his time of 9.86 seconds marking a new world record. In the long jump, Lewis arrived in Tokyo unbeaten in sixty-five competitions, a remarkable streak stretching back to the early 1980s. Powell was also in good form, having won thirteen of the fourteen long jump competitions he had entered that year – although the man he had lost to at the American championships was the man that many commentators had already crowned world champion.

With his first leap, Lewis provided a reminder of his athletic dominance. His mark was measured at 8.68 meters, a new World Championship record and the longest non-altitude jump of all time. However, with his second jump, Powell reached 8.54 meters, indicating that Lewis’ status as the presumptive gold medalist may be under threat. Lewis responded with 8.83 meters in the third round, before reaching 8.91 meters in the fourth round. While Lewis’ leap was wind-assisted, making it ineligible for record purposes, it moved him beyond a mark that many commentators had long thought almost unassailable; Bob Beamon’s long jump record, set in the rarified air of Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Almost unbelievably, in the fifth round, Powell went one better, soaring to a wind legal 8.95 meters, the longest jump of all time. With his final efforts of 8.87 and 8.84 meters, Lewis came agonizingly close to overhauling his compatriot and rival, but Powell prevailed. In a breathless write-up of the event, Baltimore Sun journalist Mike Littwin opened his article by asserting that “Carl Lewis wept. He wiped the tears from his eyes – tears of disbelief, tears of disappointment – when, from nowhere, Mike Powell stole the long jump record that was supposed to be his.”1

In the high-stakes arena of professional sport, Lewis was hardly the first male athlete to have let his emotions show. Nevertheless, by focusing on Lewis’s tears, Littwin and other journalists tapped into a complicated history of media representation which can be traced back throughout the athlete’s career. Since he exploded onto the international stage as a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old in 1981, becoming the number one ranked 100-meter sprinter and long jumper in the world, Lewis had been a source of fascination and mystery for the American mainstream media. To many white journalists, Lewis was “different.” Part of this was his appearance. As Richard Moore notes, “beautiful” was a word regularly deployed to describe Lewis; a word not often applied to Black male sports stars “with its connotations of feminine grace and aesthetics.” This, though, was only part of the story. Muhammad Ali was just one earlier Black sporting superstar who had been described in such terms – in relation to both his dazzling good looks and craft in the boxing ring. Yet where Ali was a charismatic and often brash performer, Lewis was “elegant,” “soft-spoken,” and “mild-mannered.”2 Where Ali courted controversy with his Black Power politics and connections to the Nation of Islam, the only race Lewis appeared to be interested in was on the track.

Lewis promised to be the next great “crossover” star; his coach Joe Douglas believed he could be the sporting equivalent of Michael Jackson. Sportswriters responded in kind, with Lewis’s dashing appearance, graceful demeanor, and rigorous avoidance of the “race question” quickly becoming a winning combination. At the same time, Lewis did not fit neatly into conceptions of race and sporting excellence harbored by many of the nation’s most prominent (and predominantly white) sports journalists. There was no driving societal impetus here – no broken family or desire to get out of the projects. Both of Lewis’s parents were college educated, and although they had been involved in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, they had moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to a middle-class community in suburban Philadelphia, where Lewis grew up. He showed little interest in basketball, and reportedly preferred to pick daisies than play ball in the outfield. In a later Sports Illustrated profile by Gary Smith, Lewis was seen to fare little better at American football: “he saw a boy fall heavily…’Be tough!’ he heard the coach holler…’Get up! Be a man!’ Carl didn’t want to play a sport in which he couldn’t be whoever he was, and he wandered away.”

In an era where media understandings of race, masculinity, and sporting excellence continued to be shaped by expectations of social pathology and embodied by imposing figures such as Lawrence Taylor, Bo Jackson, and Mike Tyson, Lewis disrupted these assumptions. As Donald McCrae and other writers attest, within the overwhelmingly white world of 1980s sports journalism, there was often little space for Black athletes who did not conform to existing, and often highly problematic, conceptions of racial identity. Another wrinkle to Lewis’s story was his sexuality, which white journalists often found inscrutable. Rumors that Lewis was gay persisted throughout his career, with commentators left further befuddled by the athlete’s often taciturn response: “they say it because no one knows what I’m doing…It’s the same reason they say Michael Jackson’s homosexual, because he keeps to himself.”3 This unease shaped Lewis’s public representation. In 1984 he won four gold medals at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but journalists soured on him, and big brands didn’t seem that interested. Tom Tellez, Lewis’s college coach, suggested that the athlete was ahead of his time. Lewis alluded to something else: “men, athletes especially, have to be like King Kong…We have to be carved in a certain way just to be men…I think it’s disgusting.”4

By the beginning of 1991, personal tragedies and athletic setbacks had seen some journalists soften towards Lewis. His choir-boy reputation had also begun to tarnish; not least because of an arrest for drunk driving in his adopted hometown of Houston, Texas. Coupled with his defeat to Powell in their extraordinary Tokyo match-up, did Lewis’s newfound fallibility allowed for a more sympathetic portrayal? For much of his career, tears would have been seen as further evidence of Lewis’s sensitivity, his graceful fragility, his refusal to be placed into specific categories of race, masculinity, and sporting performance. Now, as Mike Littwin detailed, “Lewis wept…but we felt sorry for him and glad for him at the same time…the record belonged to Powell, but the moment belonged to Lewis.”5

  1. “Lewis’ Biggest Victory Comes After Defeat,” Baltimore Sun, September 1, 1991
  2. “Carl Lewis is in Gear for Drive to Record,” Philadelphia Enquirer, June 28, 1981.
  3. “Carl Lewis,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 12, 1984.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Lewis’ Biggest Victory.”
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.

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