Carl Lewis On Sportsmanship, Olympic Legacy

Carl Lewis. JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images.

Nine-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis attends a tennis match in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2007. Getty Images hide caption

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Just before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Olympic legend Carl Lewis reflects on his participation in the games and his philosophy of sportsmanship. The track star weighs in on how athletes should respond to political controversies surrounding this year's games.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch, the part of the program where we speak with distinguished elders from a variety of fields in hopes they'll share not just knowledge but wisdom from years of accomplishment. Often our guests have not only been present when history was being made but they've made history themselves.

This week, we speak with Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis. As a track and field champion, he competed in four Olympic Games and won nine gold medals. As we look forward to the 2008 Olympics, we're pleased to be joined by Carl Lewis. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CARL LEWIS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is an Olympic year still a thrill for you?

LEWIS: It is. It's an interesting year because I thought, when I retired in 1997, that I would calmly fade away and basically, people would say, would you like to come to the Olympics and maybe I'd be allowed to come. But the strange thing is that it's grown in the opposite way and as time goes on, I found that people, instead of looking at my performances, they kind of look at the things that I tried to do in sports, whether that's speak out against drugs or fight for equality in terms of financial gain. All those kind of things, saying, wait a minute, well, maybe there's more to him.

MARTIN: Talking about speaking out, you recently wrote a piece that got our attention in the dailyvoice.com about this whole question about whether athletes should boycott the Olympics. You say, for those who argue that sports and politics do not intertwine, I strongly disagree. Sports and politics mix every time an athlete puts on a uniform. I'm going to fastforward a little bit and go to your conclusion. You say, Gone are the days of using the athletes as a sacrificial lamb to make a political statement. It's time for President Bush and other world leaders to take that stand and do the very thing they told us to do back in 1980. This time, they should stay home. The athletes should go and compete. Tell me a little bit more about your thinking on that.

LEWIS: Well, my thinking really is that, as we know, you know, lot of people say sports and politics do not mix. But like I said in the article, it mixes from the day you put on shoes. You know, as kids, your parents are lobbying, and as you get older, everything happens. That's all political. And then also, I was on the 1980 Olympic team, and we boycotted the games because President Carter said, we'll cut off funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee if everybody goes. So we stayed at home. Most of us didn't understand, we didn't know how we could make a difference in that issue. And...

MARTIN: Well, it was because what the issue was that the games are being held in Moscow and it was because of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. That was the political reason behind it.

LEWIS: That was the political reason, exactly. And it was really a stand, I thought, in later looking back - of course, President Carter needed something at that time because it was a difficult time for him. But bigger than that, I mean, it's ironic that years later, you know, here we are dealing with Afghanistan on an opposite end. So my take is that you have to be very careful when you do that because the Olympics is something that is rare that you could get two times to do in a life. And it's such an honor to be on an Olympic team. And now all the sudden you made it and someone says, well, you know, I decided you can't go. And to the athlete, it's devastating. For me, if an athlete is able to go there and stand in that gold medal stand, they have a bigger platform than they would if they didn't go. So sometimes I think you can go to the dance and be the best dancer instead of staying home.

MARTIN: One controversy that tends to stay in the news regarding athletes is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. You've been an outspoken advocate of rigorous drug testing. Why is that? You know, earlier this year, for example, Marion Jones, one of the most popular athletes in recent memory was convicted, sentenced to prison for her drug use. Some people think that's a bit much. You know, she's a new mother, breastfeeding, she hurt herself more than anybody else. Talk to me about why you've taken such a strong stance on this.

LEWIS: Well, that, here again, I disagree on that. I think it's a much bigger issue. And I think it's part of us as society because what Marion does is a part of a society. Realistically, I mean, sports started this downward run years ago when we stopped physical education in schools. Kids don't get the idea of what it's like to compete. They don't understand what rules are and everything else. So now we have kids that are growing up and it's all about winning.

What really alarms me also is that you hear kids now, they're selecting their sport at 13 years old. They have to figure out, what's my best sport and specialize in that. At 13, I was not very good a track athlete. I was an average soccer player. So since when did professional sports become for 13-year-olds? That's when it's supposed to be fun in playing. So I think that our society has changed in a sense that everyone is trying to get a scholarship, become a professional, go to the next level at an age when kids should be having fun and learning the basics about fair play, hard work, discipline.

We can test all day long but the reality, if we don't change the society, then it's going to hurt all sports. And now, as we see, you could say it's about her, but the reality is that kids that are just taking drugs to look better, to feel better, and it actually goes out into society and that's what's happening.

MARTIN: Do you think you can get drugs out of sport?

LEWIS: I don't believed you can drugs out of sport completely because people like to cheat. It's as simple as that. But I think we can get it to where most of the best athletes do not want to take it, so you can be the other one. And that's going to take effort, not only just drug testing but also it's going to take the pharmaceutical companies, it's going to take government, it's going to take all these areas coming together.

The reality now is that why can't we have it when you sign on as a professional athlete, you sign an affidavit that if you test positive you can be sued by your organization? Well, then you have to go out and testify under oath and tell the truth. Most athletes test positive and they spend their two years, they don't have to tell anything what happened, they can do whatever they want. They come back and say, I served my suspension. But why did it happen? Who gave it to you? Where did it come from? Why don't we get this out? So we have to bring all three of those areas together in order to stop this problem.

MARTIN: A lot of people, though, argue - in fact Marian Jones argued that she took these things unknowingly. And some argue that it's really the coaches who implicated, that you're so dependent on your coaches that you're vulnerable, you're going to take something if somebody tells you to take it. Do you think that's a fair argument?

LEWIS: Yeah, I do. In some cases, I honestly do. I mean, you can't tell me that there is a gentleman or a coach, someone like her coach, Trevor Graham, who I really publicly called - he's nothing but a cheap pusher. You take someone like him and you take an impressionable young woman and you say, take this and do this. Yeah, of course, I totally agree with that. So we have to clamp down on at every level and make sure that we get coaches like that out. If an athlete tests positive, that's the first person we should go to, and I totally agree that some people do not know. But others use their coach to get it, as well.

MARTIN: Do you think Justin Gatlin deserves a second chance? His appeal was recently denied. He was a rising star on the sport. A lot of people were surprised that his test came up dirty. Do you think he deserves a second chance? And what do you think about second chances, in general?

LEWIS: Well, I believe everyone deserves a second chance. If I was the one setting the rules, what I would do is I would suspend everyone indefinitely. And I'd send them to like drug rehab and to figure out why did you take it, what are the issues, what's the problem, all these kind of things. Who gave it to you, how did you get it? And once I feel like we got over that hump, then I'd let them back. Justin and I talked recently about that, and he just called for some advice and support.

And in my thing is that the bottom line, the rules have changed in drug testing and the way it is in the public. Before, you could go to a judge and say, I've been wrong and that's it. And the judge can say, well, you know, you're exactly right. But public opinion's changed. They're not going to give you that support any longer. And when I read through what the judge said, he says, well, I think you were wrong - but...

Because at the bottom line, the public is not going to stand for it any more. They are against drugs. So, yes, I definitely believe in second chances, but I believe from day one you should go into sports rehab so when you come out of it, then you've kind of solved the problem and dealt with the issue and we're not going to worry about you going back.

MARTIN: How did you avoid that trouble? You competed into your thirties, right?

LEWIS: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: At a time when a lot of people would think, well, you know, time to hang up the cleats, and you hang in there. Did - it made the - the Olympic Games you were in last, in '96?

LEWIS: '96, yeah.

MARTIN: You're a little gray at the temples. How did you...

LEWIS: Actually, I actually tried to be gray because it was more dramatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: But I would have been the one that took it in 2000, if I'd stayed in.

MARTIN: Is that a scoop?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: You got it. The first one I told in public. I was in stores saying, how can I make it grayer? But no, really, my thing is that I had probably the best coach in history, that's had more gold medallists and more medallists and athletes, and he didn't believe it. And I think a lot of it is just who I was. My parents raised me in a way to do what you think is right. And I always did that, and I know that if I was...

MARTIN: Were you ever tempted, though? I mean, just be honest, were you ever tempted, especially when you're getting older, you're body's not healing as quickly.

LEWIS: I wasn't tempted.

MARTIN: Never?

LEWIS: No, because by the time that happened, I had like eight gold medals. All right? So, it was...

MARTIN: Hello.

LEWIS: I think that the reality is that I really think the support was important because part of the things that I walk my life everyday is that when I saw Marian, and that was the one time I really felt sorry for her because I said, it doesn't matter if you're telling the world, to me, what you did was a mistake, but gosh, I do not want to have to face my mother and say, I'm sorry, I let you down. And my family and everyone around me who was so proud of me and supported me so much that I just didn't want to let them down.

MARTIN: But you know, you had that dustup over the '88 drug tests, which you failed because you were taking stimulants, right?

LEWIS: Right, right.

MARTIN: Now, they're not anabolic steroids but they were banned at that time. You had a warning, so where is the line?

LEWIS: Well, I agree. The line is pretty clear now, and it's interesting and I'm glad you brought that up. Because it was a - it was like a cold medicine-type stimulant that is not on the ban list now. When they started the testing, they just put everything on it because they were not sure. But now, of course, they test better, so the stimulant that came from like a cold medicine then is not even on the list now.

MARTIN: But were you taking it for a cold or were you taking it to enhance performance?

LEWIS: No, no. I was taking it because it was part of my training program because I was a vegetarian at that time. So I took - it was an herbal, basically for my herbal supplement.

MARTIN: But where's the line?

LEWIS: Well, the line really is performance enhancing. And I wasn't really doing anything to enhance my performance. It was a part of my diet plan. And I think that at the end of the day, the line is very clear. Because I never sought out, and 90 percent of the athletes never start their sports or even try to take drugs, and I still believe that to this day.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with nine-time Olympic gold medal winner, Carl Lewis, for this week's Wisdom Watch. Can I go way back and ask you, when did you first realize you were fast?

LEWIS: Well, I first realized I was fast in high school, at the end of high school. Many people don't realize that I was a long jumper going into college that also sprinted. And I started sprinting more because my college - I went to the University of Houston, five slamma jamma(ph) time...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: And, you know, get a little plug for U of H. And I wanted to win the conference meet. You know, I did not like University of Texas. I did not like Texas and I wanted to win the conference. So I started sprinting just to try to score points. And next thing you know, as a freshman, I won the sprints. So I continued to sprint and then I would go to track meets sometimes and run the hundred meters because I'd won a long jump every meet. And someone would say, when is the long jump? So that kind turned me off saying, I sprint also. So really, it became a challenge based out of college.

And then as I started winning more races, people started thinking of the fastest man and, you know, I like that title. To this day, most people think of me as the fastest human. They don't really think me as a long jumper, although that's the event I had more success in.

MARTIN: Which raises a question. Could a Carl Lewis happen today? You pointed out that kids are encouraged to push, really, to pick their sport very early, to specialize in it. It used to be common for kids to play three sports. They'd play a different sport all year round. They played - you know, what, soccer or football in the fall. They played basketball in the winter. Maybe they played baseball or run track in the spring. Now kids are encouraged to play all these sports all year long. Could a Carl Lewis happen today? You're a relatively late bloomer as a track star, as a runner.

LEWIS: As a runner, yes. I - you know what? I'm glad you ask that. And I think the chances are very slim compared to when it was when I competed because in 10th grade, the most important thing in my life was to be taller than my mother. It had nothing to do with sports. And I grew from five-six to six feet from the end of 10th grade to high school, to graduation. So I think that the chances are slimmer because we're not focusing on kids having fun and enjoying sports but focusing on getting at any sport.

What's going to happen is that Europe, which has the opposite philosophy, the kids learn fundamentals, they do all kinds of sports and they play more. As we can see in professional sports, they're coming everyday. And reality is that they're not taking the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth kid on the basketball court. They're taking the kids in the middle on up, because those ones on the end can shoot free throws because they are not the best talent. They can pass the ball. If it's the ones that want to just slam dunk and all that, they're the jobs they're taking.

MARTIN: What advice do you have for parents now who are trying to figure out how to best to guide their kids, you know, given the context that we're in now?

LEWIS: Well, best advice for parents is sports and activities are tremendous for kids. But if they say, I want your kid to go full year, then tell them, I don't want to do that. I want them to do all kinds of events. And when you go to the events, sit in the stands, watch them. If they win or if they lose, get them some ice cream at the end of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: Really, sit in the stands. You can't live your life through your children. You have no idea what's going to happen. There is no correlation between a childhood success and a professional athlete. Just have fun with it. The best kids are going to become the best. But the best thing about it is that you're going to learn lessons in playing those sports about winning and losing and teamwork and teammates and arguments and everything else that are going to affect you positively for the rest of your life.

MARTIN: Talk to me for a little bit about attitude, if you would.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Some people complain today that kids are less coachable, they have more of a 'tude. As a person who is widely believed to have a 'tude when you were competing...

LEWIS: Yes.

MARTIN: What do you have to say about that?

LEWIS: Well, I do. I do see that one of the problems now with kids is that we have created that own monster because it's the "P" word, which I would say. Potential, not performance. I came up in a time when you were paid for performance, not just your potential. In track and field now, college kids are getting big contracts out of college with shoe companies. And in our day, they had to run to earn that. So it's all the way through our society. I mean, you know, I love music and...

MARTIN: But you were known for having a healthy self-esteem in your day.

LEWIS: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: And perhaps still do, I don't know, I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Where is the line?

LEWIS: Well, the line is the fact that when I go back into the sport now after a 10-year hiatus, everyone says, gosh, you wore me out but I always respected you. Because I always showed up on time, I always respected the fans, and I always respected the people I worked with. They can't say that I had an attitude or I had a problem or anything. They can say, you were tough, in negotiations, I couldn't stand it every moment, but gosh, you were the best thing for us.

So I think that you need to understand your place, and if you really believe in yourself and you believe that you earn something, then you need to take it to the next level. And to me the word is respect. I mean, they can like you or dislike you but if they respect you, that's where it is. And fortunately for me, a lot of people respected what I believed in because I believed that from 18 years old, if I'm going to run track and sweat every day and try to do the same thing that the NFL and NBA players do, why shouldn't I be paid, also?

MARTIN: I heard you say in an interview once that - when somebody said, you know, you're arrogant, you have attitude, what's your problem. You said, I don't understand that, I 'm either running or I'm complaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: Yeah. That's it. And you know, it's interesting. I even changed as I got older. I used to - when people said to me, oh, you're arrogant and you're aloof and everything, I used to say, oh, no, I'm not, no, I'm not. Then I was like 41 and three weeks or something, and it dawned to me, you know, I was arrogant and I was aloof because I was arrogant enough to say, at 22 years old, I'm going to win four golf medals and I win out and did it.

And when I went to a competition, I'd sit by myself. I would never sit with the other athletes because I was there to win and they'd say, why would you do that? I said, because honestly - this may be family hour - but I was there to kick your ass, I wasn't there to make friends. Let's have a beer later, after I won, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: So I said - they were totally right. I was all of that. But that was on the track, and off the track, I was totally different.

MARTIN: We'll have to take your word for it because other people have different testimonies and therefore...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: Well, they carry it off, I don't.

MARTIN: Do you have any final wisdom to share?

LEWIS: Well, my wisdom is, especially for young people, create yourself in a situation where you, you know, whether it's education - which my parents are both teachers so that was important - athletics, just create yourself a saleable self. I'm still here not because of - just because I ran fast and jumped far but because of I tried to respect what I did, the education that I knew and I did. And you know what? I loved the fans. I spent so much time - a lot of the media was angry with me a lot of times because I would take too much time with the fans or sign autographs and they wanted the interview, or I'd be late because I'd go to a hospital and all that kind of stuff. That's just stuff that you give back and it comes back to you.

MARTIN: Carl Lewis, nine-time Olympic gold medal winner. He joined us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEWIS: Great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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