The Olympic G.O.A.T.? One Thing’s For Sure: It Ain’t Lewis

By: Dan Grant

With the London Olympics in full swing, Same Page thought it might be appropriate – pertinent, even – for their only current contributing member who lives in the UK to chime in with some thoughts thus far. I wracked my brain trying to come up with story ideas, from the opening ceremonies (generally well received here, if a bit British, which makes sense) to the fervor of being in an relatively small Olympic country during the Olympics (I live in Edinburgh, roughly 650km north of London. Close enough). So nothing was grabbing me. Until, that is, I started hearing words thrown around that always pique my interest, those words being simply: ‘the greatest of all time’.

I love debating eternal greatness in sports. Arguing the merits of one player vs. another, one generation vs. another and everything in between is something that I find endlessly entertaining. When it comes to the Olympics however, many new questions are raised that aren’t generally part of the debate. This is because at the Olympics, regardless of your discipline, everybody is out for the same prize: medals. Whether you’re an equestrian from Portugal, a gymnast from Serbia or a boxer from the Seychelles, you’re all reaching for the exact same thing. This leads to the inevitable debate about whether or not some sports matter more. If all sports in the Olympics are created equal and all events are created equal (as they would seem to be; otherwise why does each have an equal medal?) then Michael Phelps is without a doubt the greatest Olympian ever. Phelps was recently given this trophy:

2012: So happy.

The trophy was a first ever gift of its kind, given by FINA (the Fédération Internationale de Natation, essentially the swimming arm of the International Olympic Commitee), celebrating Phelps achievement of becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time. It was, essentially, the IOC weighing in on this very debate. It was if they were saying ‘Here you go Mike. You’re the best. And if anybody argues, you’ve got this silver thing to prove them wrong!’ (It couldn’t have been gold? Really?).

However, it brings us back to a question that is always asked in regards to Olympic swimming, that being whether or not it’s fair, comparatively, that Olympic swimmers have so many chances at medals. In his column last week, Bill Simmons made the comment ‘What’s the point of the backstroke again? Allow me to become the 17,045,912th person to make the “They don’t have the 100-Meter Backward Dash, do they?” joke since 1912’.[1]

But in all seriousness, they DON’T have that event or anything like it. So why do swimmers get extra medals for, essentially, moving slower through the water in some goofy manoeuvre that people decided was an official ‘stroke’ 150 years ago? Is the qualitative difference between freestyle swimming and butterfly swimming greater than the one between the 100m dash and the 110m hurdles? Is swimming just easier? If not, why don’t more sprinters also compete in the hurdles? Can we measure this somehow?

The answer, of course, is no we can’t. These are impossible, wonderful questions that can create hours of conversation but have no real answer. There is no finite way to measure the innate value of one Olympic medal vs. another and the events are so established now that they are unlikely to change significantly moving forward. And even if they did, would it matter? It’s still swimming vs. running. ‘Apples and oranges’ doesn’t even begin to explain the differences between the two sports.

However, that question still lingers, who is the greatest Olympian of all time? If we go quantitatively, by medals alone, it has to be Phelps. However, ESPN columnist Michael Wilbon disagrees. In his piece last week, Wilbon attempts to answer the ‘greatest ever’ question, at least in his own opinion. After praising the merits of Phelps and introducing other athletes into the conversation, he eventually settles on former American Olympic sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis as his choice for the greatest ever. Now, Carl Lewis is an Olympic legend. He was a two sport star in two very different disciplines and he represented the USA at four Olympic Games (and would have been at five, had the USA not boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow). Carl Lewis won 9 gold medals and 10 Olympic medals overall. Carl Lewis was the 100m champion. He held the title of ‘fastest man alive’ and until Usain Bolt did it a couple of days ago, he was the only man to ever successfully defend that title, winning in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Seoul in 1988. Carl Lewis sounds like a reasonable choice right? If the 100m dash is a premiere event, more so than any event swimming has to offer (and it is, in the eyes of the global fan, despite the squawks of protest from swim fans everywhere), then Lewis has to be included in this debate. Except for one thing.

1984: Also so happy.

Carl Lewis was a cheater.

You may have seen Lewis in the news recently, criticizing Usain Bolt and Jamaica’s drug testing program. This borders on laughable. Allow me to give you some background on the subject. The degree of Lewis’s offenses is up for debate, as many suspect him of greater violations. But indisputably, unarguably, Carl Lewis tested positive for three banned substances in the trials for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. And he didn’t just test positive once. He tested positive three separate times! He was pardoned by the USOC, who at the time conducted the drug testing for the American Olympic team, on the basis that there ‘was no intent’.  In fact, he was pardoned in the very same letter that informed him that he had tested positive[2]. Now it’s true that the substances Lewis tested positive for can be found in common cold remedies. But what happened when Canadian rower Silken Laumann tested positive  for just one of those chemicals (Phenylpropanolamine) at the 1995 Pan-Am Games? She and her teammates were immediately stripped of their gold medals. And what happened when Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan tested positive for another of the three (Pseudoephedrine) at the 2000 Sydney Games? Her gold medal was taken away and her coach was banned from international competition for several years.

So why was Carl Lewis allowed to compete? Could it have had something to do with him being the USA’s most recognizable Olympic star going into an Olympics being held in the potential TV ratings disaster that was Seoul, South Korea? Or maybe it could have had something to with the fact that the previously mentioned USOC (United States Olympic Committee) used to do all of their own drug testing and enforcement. What’s that? Speak into your good ear? You heard me correctly. The USA, at the time, did not submit to any international standard of drug testing, simply expecting (read: demanding) the rest of the world trust them at their word, even as international sports was exploding into one of the biggest businesses on the planet and motivations for success became much larger than the purity of sport.

Lewis  wasn’t officially exposed until the early aughts, when former senior USOC official Dr. Wade Exum leaked documents implicating 100 US Olympic athletes from 1988-2000, including winners of 19 Olympic medals. Lewis’s reaction to the charge was pretty revelatory. The US has since submitted to testing, like every other nation, by the independent World Anti-doping Agency. Since then, American dominance in sprinting has faded, with stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery disgraced and exiled from the sport and numerous other athletes failing tests that one has to assume they would previously have been granted a pass on. Now would they have been granted that pass for sure? We can’t know. But the cloud of doubt is there, and rightfully so.

Back to Lewis. Why wasn’t this a bigger deal you ask? Well, we weren’t living in a social media driven 24/7 sports universe yet. The massive wait before his results were leaked was another thing, as his world record from 1988 had already been broken at 1996 Atlanta games by Canadian Donovan Bailey. However the other and much larger smokescreen was the scandal that surrounded that 1988 race, namely the disgrace surrounding Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson and his positive test for anabolic steroids. You see, for those who don’t know, Lewis didn’t actually finish first in the running of that race. He ran a 9.92, which was eventually upheld as the world record, but Johnson finished in 9.79, shattering his own record from the 1987 World Championships. After his positive test and admission that he had been using steroids for much of the 1980’s, both of Johnson’s times were invalidated and he was given a 2 year ban from the sport. Lewis was then retroactively awarded the gold medal, thus ‘defending’ his title from 1984, a huge piece of that resume we spoke of earlier, the one that Michael Wilbon considers to be so impressive. Following his ban, Johnson became one of Lewis’s most vocal critics, adamantly claiming that he was only juicing ‘to remain competitive’ and that everyone in that race was on something or another. He didn’t do himself any favours either, testing positive for various substances two more times in the 90’s and eventually devolving into a sideshow (The guy raced a horse and endorsed an energy drink named ‘Cheetah’. Say it out loud. And no, not at the same time). But were his accusations true? Well Linford Christie, the Great Britain sprinter who originally finished third but was awarded the silver medal after Johnsons disgrace, was later tainted by steroid allegations. Ditto for Dennis Mitchell, an American sprinter in the race. All told, 7 of the 8 finalists were convicted or suspected of some type of major substance violation. It’s was so dirty they wrote a damn book about it.

OK, not so happy.

I could go into even more detail, if you can believe that, but I’ll give it a rest. Facts and figures about Lewis’s marked improvements in both the long jump and the 100m are documented, as are his post athletic struggles as an entertainer and politician. But the thing that sticks with me most is this: the aforementioned Bill Simmons , editor-in-chief of Grantland, is a self-admitted former Lewis junkie. He loved him, hung on his every performance. And while he marvels over his talent, a prevailing memory of Lewis is not him winning any of his 9 gold medals or any of his successes. It’s the fact that he promised to try for the long jump record in 1984, in front of the home crowd in Los Angeles and didn’t. Simmons says in his article: ‘I remember being as furious as every other American; it was one of those moments that tainted every other memory of the day. You were the one who told us you were gonna break Beamon’s record, you dick! Now you’re packing it in with four jumps to go???? YOU DICK!!!!!!’

The debate of the G.O.A.T may never be settled. In fact, it probably won’t be. There are just too many names that can be included in the conversation. Phelps. Thorpe. Owens. Bolt. But Carl Lewis? If we strip away his Seoul medals (2 gold and his lone silver), seeing as he never should been there, his resume is greatly diminished. Beyond that, the tainted aura of substance abuse should linger over every mention of his name, like it does for other athletes who tested positive, which Lewis did. This isn’t speculation, remember. Was Carl Lewis a world class talent? Of course he was. But the fact that he tested positive and the fact that he’s remembered as a classless dick has to count against him somewhere at some point. The fact that a respected journalist like Michael Wilbon can write an article about him without even mentioning a hint of the impropriety surrounding his career is a joke. Ben Johnson didn’t get a pass and neither should Carl Lewis.


[1] You can read the rest of his breakdown between Olympic Gymnastics and Swimming here.

[2] Doesn’t that seem a little fishy? Yeah, I thought so too.

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One response to “The Olympic G.O.A.T.? One Thing’s For Sure: It Ain’t Lewis

  1. Lewis was a great athlete with fantastic accomplishments. It’s his own attitude and comments that diminished him in a lot of people’s minds. Great article, very well written.

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