Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29, 1996: Four times golden

ATLANTA - Carl Lewis didn't have much left to prove when the 1996 Olympics rolled around. Already an eight-time gold medalist, he was respected as the best American track athlete since at least Jesse Owens, and possibly of all time. Still, he had one more milestone to reach: win a medal in four straight Olympics.

One of the best sprinters and jumpers of his generation, Lewis easily qualified in the long jump for the fifth straight Olympics. He had won three straight gold medals in the event, and since he didn't compete at the boycotted 1980 Olympics, he had never been beaten in the long jump in Olympics competition. The long jump was considered his best chance at another gold.

As it turned out, it would be his only chance. He failed to qualify for the U.S. team in the 100-meters, and despite stating his desire to be a part of the 4x100 relay team, he was left off that squad. So it was the long jump or nothing for Lewis at Atlanta.

Despite being the three-time champion, Lewis wasn't seen as a favorite in the long jump, with world record holder Mike Powell and Ivan Pedroso, the top jumper in the world that year, both in that year's field. But Powell and Pedroso were both injured at the Olympics and were competing at less than full strength. That gave Lewis the opening he needed.

On his third jump, Lewis jumped 27 feet, 10.5 inches, putting him in the lead. He only had to jump one more time, as nobody got close to him. Lewis had won his fourth straight gold medal in the long jump, making him the third athlete, and second American, to win gold in the same event in four straight Olympics.

Having turned 35 just weeks before the 1996 Olympics, Lewis knew he was near the end of his career. His ninth gold medal tied him for most by an individual in history, something that added to the controversy over leaving him off the 4x100 relay team. As it turned out, the relay team was beaten for the first time in Olympic history that year, and Lewis likely wouldn't have helped the team improve to the gold at his age. Also, while Lewis tied for the gold medal record at the 1996 games, that mark has since been broken by Michael Phelps.

As it turned out, the 1996 games were Lewis' last international competition. At his retirement, he was honored as one of the best Olympians ever, regardless of nationality. Winning golds in four straight Olympics will do that for you.

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