When you are 11-years-old, some athletes seem larger than life. That is what Carl Lewis was to this kid growing up.
We are going to go off topic here for a moment and talk about the Olympics, which begin soon in London. Personally, while the Dream Team was a great thing for the U.S. in 1992, I miss the days when the college players would represent our country in the Olympics.
After the first Dream Team -- thinking wrongly that it would be a one-time beat down of the other countries -- I thought it would be great to go back to sending the college teams, maybe even the NCAA Champion from the year before.
But that was the musing of a naive 16-year-old. And while the crushing defeats that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest dished out at every turn were great, my favorite Olympic moment came four years earlier, as I was just getting introduced to the games.
I was born in September 1976, so what should have been my first memories of the Summer Olympics were stolen because the USSR invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow.
In 1984, the USSR returned the favor and the U.S. dominated the Los Angeles Olympics. Being almost 8 at the time, this was great for me. My country was winning left and right, in events that we had never won in before.
I didn't get all the political details that went into this at the time. I just knew that every morning I could run to get the paper and see the massive number of medals that the United States had earned the day before. So yes, it might have been a little jingoistic, but this was the only way I knew to celebrate the Olympics at that age.
What care did I have if someone from another country was doing something special? I was a kid, and I wanted to win. And there was no better winner at that Olympics than Carl Lewis (controversy in the long jump aside).
Lewis became the face of track and field for me, and as the Seoul Olympics approached, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to win with just as much ease as he had in Los Angeles. I didn't think there was anyone who could come close to beating him -- until Lewis lost in the 100 meter dash during the 1987 World Championships in Rome to some guy from Canada named Ben Johnson.
Afterwards, Lewis would come out and hint that Johnson was dirty, which at the time seemed like the last thing in the world that someone would do (again, the eyes of a child here).
"There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don't think they are doing it without drugs." [Lewis] added, "I could run 9.8 or faster in the 100 if I could jump into drugs right away."-Track and Field News
Why would someone not compete fairly? It didn't make sense to me.
I had faith in Lewis though because there was still time to improve before Seoul, even if the times that Ben Johnson ran seemed unreal (I would love to have one of those ghost television races with the 1980s era runners and Usain Bolt. The guys in the 80s seemed fast. Bolt would look like cannon shot him down the track).
If you don't remember, the 1988 Olympics were supposed to be something new for us. There was this thing called cable television that was sweeping the country. There were going to be channels showing the Olympics all the time. How could you not watch as much as possible with that scenario?
I spent my summer break laying in front of a fan in my non-air conditioned house and watching as much Olympics as I could. I couldn't wait until Lewis took to the track for that 100 final.
As the heats went on, you could sense it wasn't going to be easy for him. The World Record that Johnson had set in Rome seemed totally out of reach with the times that everyone was putting up, and Lewis wasn't the same buoyant self that he had been in L.A. Something was hanging over him.
When the day of the race came, I couldn't sit down. I stood to watch the race in the middle of the living room. This was the moment I had waited the entire summer to see.
He didn't just lose. He was destroyed by Johnson, who broke 9.8 seconds to smash his own record. It was unbelievable. This wasn't the Olympics I was used to. The U.S. is supposed to win it all, especially events like the 100. And Carl Lewis is supposed to be the guy doing it.
A few days later we would learn why Johnson was so fast: he had tested positive for steroids.
By today's standards, Johnson doesn't look that large, but back then, he was a giant. It was unthinkable that it hadn't come from working out (we weren't yet numb to PED use by athletes). And yet, in the biggest event, on the biggest stage, Johnson had been caught cheating.
That press conference to announce the positive test really stands out, perhaps because it was the first time anyone in my memory had been caught like this. Lewis was given the gold medal. He was also credited with the world record for his time in Seoul (9.92 s), amazingly fast by the standards of the day, considering most athletes struggled to just break 10 seconds.
More than just cementing in my head that the U.S. had the best athletes in the world (something that still makes it difficult for me whenever an American doesn't win some major event), this was an important lesson growing up.
In some way, this was good triumphing over evil, even if that evil wasn't one of the hated Soviet athletes. This was a clean runner winning over a dirty athlete.
There have been accusations that Lewis wasn't as squeaky clean as my brain made him out to be, and in other sports, some of my favorite players have later come out and said that they have taken something to help their performance.
But on this day, in my mind, good won. Even if just for the moment, an 11-year-old boy was happy.
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