Alabama native Carl Lewis (1961- ) is one of the most recognized track and field athletes in U.S. and Olympic history, winning nine gold medals in four different Olympiads. His four gold medals in the 1984 Olympics equaled that of his hero and fellow Alabamian, Jesse Owens, in the 1936 Olympics. Lewis’s track and field career began in 1979, when he achieved his first world ranking as an athlete at the University of Houston, and lasted until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he won his final gold medal.
Carl Lewis Frederick Carlton Lewis was born to Bill and Evelyn Lewis on July 1, 1961, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, the third of four children. Carl’s father played football and ran track at the Tuskegee Institute, and his mother, the former Evelyn Lawler, was a world-class hurdler who represented the United States at the 1951 Pan-American Games and competed in the 1952 Olympics in the 80-meter hurdles. In 1963, when Carl was two years old, his family moved to Willingboro, New Jersey, to escape the escalating tensions and violence of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Once in Willingboro, track became an integral part of Lewis’s life as his parents were teachers and founded a local track club for girls. The club soon opened to boys, thus serving as the catalyst for Lewis’s career in track and field. As a result of their parents’ tutelage, both Carl and his sister Carol went on to compete in the Olympics and world championships. (Carol was a long jumper who won a bronze medal in the 1983 World Championships and finished ninth in the 1984 Olympics.)
When Carl Lewis was a junior at Willingboro High School, he became one of the top long jumpers in the state of New Jersey. As a high school senior, Lewis broke the national prep long jump record with a jump of 26 feet 8 inches and thus also became one of the top long jumpers in the world. Upon graduation from high school, Lewis entered the University of Houston. By the end of his first year, Lewis was ranked fifth in the world in the long jump by Track and Field News.
Lewis at the University of Houston Lewis qualified to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the long jump and as a member of the 4×100 relay team but was denied the opportunity as a result of the U.S. boycott of the games. By 1981, Lewis was ranked first in the world in the long jump as well as in the 100 meters, a position he held for nearly a decade. In 1983, Lewis won the 100-meter, 200-meter, and long jump events at the U.S. National Championships, a feat that had not been achieved since 1886. He was also ranked first in the world in the 200 meters from 1981 to 1986 and first in the world in the long jump from 1981 to 1985, 1987 to 1989, and in 1992 and 1996.
Lewis’s Olympic achievements from 1984 until 1996 were equally impressive. In his first Olympic competition in 1984 in Los Angeles, Lewis won gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay. He thus became the first Olympic athlete to win four gold medals since Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics and won the same four events as Owens. Lewis went on to win four consecutive gold medals in the long jump in 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996; and two consecutive gold medals in the 100-meter dash in 1984 and 1988, the latter after the winning sprinter, Canadian Ben Johnson, was disqualified for illegal steroid use. After winning his final gold medal in the long jump in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Lewis retired from the sport in 1997.
Carl Lewis at the United Nations Despite Lewis’s dominance of track and field for more than a decade, he was not a popular representative of his sport, coming across to many as arrogant and aloof. Edwin Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400 hurdles, suggested that Lewis lacked humility. Other athletes resented Lewis for accepting appearance fees overseas while still competing as an amateur. In addition, Lewis and many other U.S. athletes were alleged to have tested positive for banned stimulants before the 1988 Olympics, and Lewis was temporarily banned. Lewis denied any wrongdoing. In any event, the U.S. Olympic Committee considered the alleged use unintentional and allowed Lewis to compete. Lewis received numerous tributes recognizing his accomplishments as an athlete. Track and Field News named him Athlete of the Year in 1982, 1983, and 1984. In November 1999, he was voted “Best Olympian of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated and in December 1999, “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee. Also in 1999, Lewis was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and in December 2001 he was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Lewis then moved to Los Angeles, California, and pursued an acting career, appearing in several films and as himself in cameos on several television series. In 2009, he became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and visited many areas of the world to speak about hunger and food insecurity. In 2011, Lewis attempted to run for the New Jersey State Senate but was rejected for not meeting residency requirements. In 2018, he became an assistant coach for the track team at the University of Houston. Lewis has one son with wife Maria Lewis.
Coffey, Wayne. Carl Lewis. Woodbridge: Blackbirch Press, 1993.
Lewis, Carl, and Jeffrey Marx. Inside Track: My Professional Life in Amateur Track and Field. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.