Track needs a high profile

By Fran Blinebury
Updated: January 18, 2009

HOUSTON – Throughout a long a glorious career as perhaps the greatest American Olympian ever, Carl Lewis usually ran away from the pack.

But now, more than a decade after he retired as a sprinter and long jumper, Lewis is still tirelessly covering ground to raise the profile and burnish the image of track and field, the sport that made him famous all over the world.

While he still keeps a residence in Los Angeles, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist has been strengthening his ties with his boyhood home community in Willingboro, N.J., and Saturday hosted the Carl Lewis High School Indoor Invitational track meet at the Yeoman Field House on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Houston.

More than 1,300 athletes from several hundred high schools were expected to take part in the meet.

“When I was first asked about doing this meet and putting my name on it, I said I would only do it if it was a high school meet,” Lewis said. “Because it’s those kids where we have the most work to do and the most opportunity to raise the consciousness of track and field in America.”

Track and field is still incredibly popular with the youngest age groups. It’s basic. But the sport is hemorrhaging youths — as athletes and fans — to football, basketball and other sports when they become teenagers.

Track and field is also suffering in an era when more kids tend to specialize in a single sport with one eye on the longshot possibility of a lucrative payday.

“I don’t blame the kids,” Lewis said. “I blame the parents. Two things that I don’t believe in are specialization and the idea that everybody wins. These parents that are trying to identify where ‘Johnny’ is great at such a young age are just trying to chase dollars for scholarships or careers.

“I say let kids take part in as many sports, try as many different things as they want. When I was 13, I was better at soccer than I was at running. So by today’s way of thinking, I never would have even tried track and field later on. Where would I be? I don’t think a professional soccer player.

Misguided philosophy

“And at the same time that parents are trying to get their kids to specialize in one sport, we’re into that ‘everybody wins’ philosophy. We don’t keep score. Nobody loses.

“What? Of course somebody loses. That’s part of the lesson of competition, and it should drive you.”

Watching the United States men’s and women’s 4×100-meter relay teams drop the baton in the preliminary round last summer at the Beijing Olympics infuriated the 47-year-old Lewis and drove him to

“I was furious at what happened, how it seems to happen to our relay teams so much at major competitions,” Lewis said. “And when I got in touch with Doug, he said, ‘Carl, I’m angrier than you are.’ That’s why he immediately said the program was going to have a complete overhaul. The reality is the sport is completely fractured. There is no guidance.”

Lewis, who never worried about speaking his mind and was outspoken during his career against drug cheats, believes that the track and field athletes are the ones most holding back the sport today.

Instead of running or jumping off to Europe or Asia for big paydays, he says they should be nurturing the sport at the grass-roots level in the United States and vigorously condemning drug cheats.

“Most of the athletes in America are delusional,” Lewis said laughing. “They’re living in a vacuum and pretending that everything is all right. A guy says, ‘I’m the fastest man in the world!’ Well, so what? There’s dozens of guys who are the last man on the bench in the NBA making 10 times your money. Do something to change that.

“Every time an athlete like Marion Jones does what she did, gets caught and sent to jail, more athletes need to be applauding. Don’t say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for Marion.’ You stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to run on a relay team with anybody who has those allegations around them.’ Stand and say, ‘I only want to be a teammate of somebody who is tested and clean.’

“When I was in Beijing, I told some of those guys, ‘Look I still have endorsement deals with McDonald’s, Visa, Coca-Cola, worldwide brands, Olympic sponsors. They’re not doing business with most of you because they don’t trust you.’ “

Following the domination by the Jamaican men’s and women’s sprint teams — led by Usain Bolt’s stunning world record runs in the 100 and 200 — Lewis caused a stir by wondering if all of the accomplishments were achieved legally.

“Look, I didn’t say anything that everybody else wasn’t thinking,” Lewis said. “Jamaica’s population is about the size of Philadelphia and suddenly they’re dominating the United States?

“Let’s be realistic,” Lewis said. “I said he (Bolt) could be the greatest of all time. But you are talking about a place that doesn’t have strict testing. For years, all of those Jamaicans used to come through America to train and there was nothing like this. Now they’ve stopped coming through America and they’re getting better by so much? It’s a question that should be asked.”

“And now what happens? The IAAF (the world governing body) says they’re going to start testing them rigorously. The point is not to take what anybody says or does at face value.”

Union needed

Lewis believes track and field athletes need a union, so that there can be one receiving house for grievances, one voice that speaks out on their behalf, one organization that mandates rules.

“It’s ridiculous now,” he said. “They don’t even want to do victory laps these days. Well, I’m telling you, they better start doing something.

“These athletes are not getting 50 percent of the money in Europe that I got in my prime, and that was 20 years ago. BMX is getting better TV ratings. If the money dries up in Europe, there will be no track and field.”

Lewis wants to see American athletes spending more time training and being visible in America. He’d like to see an ‘adopt-a-club’ program, where world-ranked athletes become affiliated with youth track and field clubs, hold clinics, create bonds.

“You want those kids to know who the track and field athletes are, the way they know football and basketball players,” he said. “You create those bonds and then kids might follow those athletes. You might create fan.

“There’s some hope because I think Doug Logan, the new CEO ‘gets it.’ He wants the United States to compete at the highest level. But he also wants track and field to compete among sports.

“The most basic way we do that is at the grass-roots level. We have to create programs, nurture programs. We have to make this sport grow while we still have a sport.”