04 May, 2015

King Carl or how I learned a new slang word

I was planning to write this post for quite a long time. Still I was missing the proper angle and I kept postponing it. Finally I got it in spades thanks to Chris Lamberts’ article “Why I despise Justin Gatlin”. No, we are not going to discuss Gatlin here. He is but small fry compared to the one and only Carl Lewis.



Lamberts personal journey from admiration of Gatlin to pure loathing reflects my own as far as Lewis is concerned. But let us rewind the tale and start at the beginning, at the time when I admired Lewis.

I became aware of Carl Lewis at the beginning of the 80s, most probably when he jumped a massive 8.62 m in 1981. In 1982 he fouled (just barely, a foul that created quite some controversy) a jump over 9 m. But the moment of real glory for Lewis came when at the 1984, Los Angeles, Olympics he matched the feat of the legendary Jesse Owens winning the four “sprint” events, 100 m, 200 m, long jump and 4x100 m. It was at that time that the first clouds did appear. I remember reading an article with a jab at Lewis concerning the 4x100 m, a race he might lose because of somebody else’s fault. The article said, tongue in cheek, that the only way to make sure that nothing like that happened was to run all four relays himself. In fact Lewis' attitude had started irritating people. For Edwin Moses “Lewis rubs it in too much. A little humility is in order. That's what Carl lacks." I ignored all this and continued admiring Lewis, through the years. I remember I was disappointed when his 8.91 m jump in the 1991, Tokyo, World championships was registered with wind aid. His final great victory came when he equalled Oerter’s feat winning in 1996 the olympic title of long jump for the fourth consecutive Olympiad.

At that time I heard the circulating rumour that Lewis could be gay. I do not care in the least about the sexual preferences of other people but I thought that that could be a possible explanation for the flamboyant attire of Lewis. I was somewhat perplexed by the choice of the IAAF of Lewis as “Athlete of the Century” but I decided that since Lewis had reproduced the feats of both Owens and Oerter the choice was not unjustified. (Who else could it have been? I don’t know, but names like Nurmi and Zatopek spring to my mind).

Things started going down the drain as far as my feelings for Lewis are concerned when at the beginning of the oughts it was revealed that Lewis had been tested positive to some forbidden substance at the 1988 US Olympic Trials. He defended himself by claiming that he had consumed the banned substances accidentally (a frequent argument of athletes who have tested positive in doping controls). To be fair, the level of stimulants used by Lewis is now regarded as a negative test. Still, it remains that at the time, with the regulations in effect, Lewis should have been excluded from the Seoul, Olympic US team. Lewis own defence in a 2003 interview was that he was let off because that was the normal practice in those times. In his own words "I don't know what people are trying to make out of nothing because everyone was treated the same, so what are we talking about? I don't get it."

But where my attitude towards Lewis veered completely was during the 2004, Athens, Olympics. I had the occasion to watch several interviews of Lewis on television and I was shocked by his haughty attitude, his arrogance, his dismissive manner towards greek athletes. This period opened my eyes and I started paying more attention to all the negative critiques towards Lewis. I found out that the person I erstwhile admired was... but I will stop here. Chris Lamberts has a great blog post on his meeting with Carl Lewis. I urge you to go and read the full text there, in particular since he has also a post on his meeting with Frankie Fredericks, who is the zenith of lovability compared to Lewis’ nadir. Still, for those of you who are too lazy, I will try to summarise Lamberts’ post.

The “meeting” of Lamberts with Carl Lewis took place at the Sports Illustrated party held after the last day of the 2004, Athens, Olympics. Chris was chatting with his mate Matt Douglas and they spotted Carl Lewis. Matt said, “Lambo, it’s Carl Lewis. He’s my fucking hero, I’ve gotta go meet him.” Lewis was wearing black formal trousers (with braces), a white vest, a bowler hat and sunglasses, just leaning against the wall with an unlit cigar in his mouth. He looked like a knob. After some hesitation they went over to Lewis. Matt said “Carl, look, I just wanted to meet you and shake your hand. You’re such a legend and an inspiration. You inspired me into the sport as a kid and have inspired me my whole career and now here I am at the Olympics. It’s kind of thanks to you. You’ve done so much... it’s so great to meet you... basically I just wanted to say you’re my hero.” Carl lowered his sunglasses, looked Matt up and down for a moment, took the cigar out of his mouth and said: “I know.” Then walked away.

It was thanks to Lamberts’ post that I learned a new slang word: knob. Initially referring to the male sex organ, the word is now used for a disliked person, “dickhead” being a synonym. After all these years and everything I have seen and read on Carl Lewis I start thinking that this word may be appropriate. 

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