Arguably the most dominant track athlete in Olympics history, Carl Lewis won nine gold medals in four Olympic games from 1984 to 1996. After taking a break from the sport following the Atlanta games, the champion sprinter and long jumper will be in Beijing for his own globally syndicated Olympics program, The Carl Lewis Connection. MensFitness.com caught up with Lewis at the Audi Best Buddies Challenge in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where he joined Tom Brady and other celebrities in raising money for people with intellectual disabilities. Lewis, who’s served on the group’s board since 1994, was typically candid about his views on the current state of track, youth athletics, and his own physical fitness.
Which athletes are you most excited to see at this year’s Olympics?
It’s bigger than just the athletes. What I really want to see is America send a clean team to the games. To me, that’s what it’s about. I stayed 110 percent away from it for 10 years and when I came back I saw a sport in total disarray. And I am not going to say it’s drug infested, because that is totally unfair, but I will say the sport is without a soul. Accountability is what the sport has lacked at every level. I want to see people win because they have worked hard their whole lives to get to this competition. You see their heart instead of seeing people that won because they did whatever they could to win.
You were on the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted the Moscow games and later won four golds in 1984, when the Russians boycotted Los Angeles. What are your thoughts on the current political climate surrounding the Beijing games?
Politics has always influenced the Olympics. And politics is always a part of sports. Some people are saying to boycott Beijing because of their human rights. And the very people calling for a boycott are also the ones buying Chinese products. You can make a stronger statement if you go there and speak. We almost boycotted the 1936 Olympics. And just think if Jesse Owens had not gone. The silver medalists in all his events were Aryan race people. So look how different our world would be had Hitler been given that platform. Instead, Jesse goes, without saying a word, and shuts that down.
What does track need to do to escape this ‘disarray’ that you mentioned?
You remember the Super Bowl when John Elway dove for the end zone and got hit?
The one where he flipped around like a helicopter?
Yeah. Do you remember the score?
But you remembered John Elway wanted to win so bad at 37 years old that he would dive for the end zone. That’s what track and field needs again, it’s lost that. Track and field has gotten to where it’s so concerned with what the times are that they forget about diving. I remember Suzy Favor running and falling across the line in the 800.
Or Mary Decker stumbling to finish the marathon.
That’s what it’s about — the sport’s lost that. And to me, that’s what’s going to bring track and field back. Not times, not performances, but people who are clean and have a lot of heart. With the team that I coach, I try to teach them integrity, respect, and also how to speak properly. I’m in a unique situation because the athletes can’t tell me, ‘I’m all that’ because you know what, I already won nine. It’s hard work and discipline. The athlete that has the biggest heart is the one that’s going to stand out in the Olympics. No matter what country they’re from.
You say track’s hit rock bottom, how do you clean it up?
I’m not a genius, but I think I know what the deal is. We no longer fund physical education in schools. Everyone knows that you learn the most amazing lessons playing as a kid. When I was a kid, we used to do pickup games or whatever. We’d fight like cats and dogs and the next day we were best friends. We solved problems. Kids don’t interact, they don’t play. Therefore, they’re not participating in sports and they don’t learn the lessons of sports — teamwork, dedication, hard work. I took a baton from people in the Olympics I couldn’t stand. But, you know what? For those few minutes, they were my best friends. Ultimately, our relationship was changed because we had to work together. Every child in America needs physical education, they need exercise, they need breakfast. If we did that, trust me, there would be a dramatic change in drug use and everything else because kids would learn ethics and competition and that would stick with them the rest of their lives.
You look like you’re still in pretty good shape. What do you do to stay fit?
I have a gym at home where I train. I also stay fit through a healthy diet. I do everything. I love to work outside in the yard, and I have two big dogs to keep me busy. I like to cycle, play basketball, and hit tennis balls too. I was raised by two parents who were both coaches, so I participated in just about every sport: swimming, basketball, tennis, whatever. I really believe in actively participating. I think its one of the things we’re missing with kids now.