By
August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

ONE DAY AFTER THE ATLANTA Journal-Constitution proclaimed, “Carl Is King!” the man himself is sitting in Atlanta’s Colony Square Hotel inhaling the fragrance of a bouquet sent by his friend Aretha Franklin—and caressing his ninth Olympic gold medal. This one “is better than all the others,” says Carl Lewis. “All the others, I was expected to win. This time I was a competitor. Before I was an icon.”

The truth is that on July 29, when he soared 27’10¾” to win the long jump competition, Lewis became an icon all over again. The award tied him in track medals with Paavo Nurmi, the legendary Finnish distance runner, who won gold nine times between 1920 and 1928. It also put him in the rarefied company of American discus thrower Al Oerter, now 60, the first track and field performer to win four consecutive golds in one event. “This Olympics was fun,” says Lewis, “because there wasn’t all the pressure. The expectation level was totally different. Also, I’m 35 and can appreciate it more. I’ve matured.”

Lewis has been a towering track and field talent since 1984, when he followed in Jesse Owens’s footsteps and won four gold medals—in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 400-meter relay. But, medals notwithstanding, he has never really been the sport’s golden boy. At the ’84 Games in Los Angeles, Lewis was booed for passing on his final four jumps to conserve his energy and for not challenging Bob Beamon’s then world record of 29’2½”. He showed up late for press conferences, complained about ill-paid amateur athletes not being allowed to be capitalists too, flaunted flamboyant clothing and hairstyles, and gave the impression of being full of himself. Instant fame, he says now, was “a tough adjustment for someone 21 years old. I did good things and bad things, but I learned through all of it.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., to Bill and Evelyn Lewis—two runners turned coaches—Lewis has been running competitively since he was 8. Now, with his career ending, he says he would like to get into broadcasting. He is interested in politics (issues, that is, “not political office”) and says he would also enjoy having more opportunities to “talk with young people. That’s what I love the most.” For the rest, he plans to spend a lot of time in his garden. “I have two acres in Houston,” says Lewis, whose endorsement deals sustain his lifestyle. “I built this new home, and I thought, ‘I want a rose garden.’ I love flowers, and I collect crystal too. It’s unexpected, but these things bring me pleasure.”

And he has found pleasure in his new relationship with the American public. “The crowd the other night was something I’ll never forget,” Lewis says. “I felt like I was in the middle of 80,000 friends. Not fans, friends. Do you know what I’m saying? It felt great.”

PETER CASTRO

GAIL CAMERON in Atlanta

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