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General News Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner

Lewis and Joyner-Kersee voted Summer Olympians of the century

Lewis and JoynerKersee voted Summer Olympians of the century
Bert Rosenthal (AP)

14 December 1999 – New York - Carl Lewis equaled Paavo Nurmi's Olympic record of nine gold medals in track and field. He matched Jesse Owens' four golds at one Olympics, and he tied Al Oerter's mark of four golds in the same event.

No one in history has made as significant an impact in such a high-profile Olympic sport. For that reason Lewis was voted the greatest male Summer Olympian of the century by a six-member panel of experts assembled by The Associated Press.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was chosen as the outstanding female Summer Olympian by the panel, which included IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and IAAF president Primo Nebiolo, who died last month just weeks after casting his votes for The AP.

Lewis received three first-place votes and a total of 55 points, edging Nurmi, the Flying Finn, who won the 1,500 and 5,000 meters only a half-hour apart at the 1920 Olympics. Nurmi also got three first-place votes and 53 points.

``It is a great honor,'' Lewis said. ``I've always felt very much more like an Olympic athlete than just a track athlete, and the successes I have had at the Olympics were much more important than those I had at track meets.''

Rounding out the top 10 were: long-distance runner Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia; Owens; Mark Spitz; U.S. discus thrower Oerter; Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila; Jim Thorpe; Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrom; and Michael Johnson, Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu and Greg Louganis, who all tied for 10th.

Joyner-Kersee received two first-place votes and 47 points, beating another track star, Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands.

Blankers-Koen, winner of four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics, had no firsts but a total of 45 points.

Russian gymnast Larysa Latynina, winner of nine Olympic golds and a record total of 18 medals, received three first-place votes and was third with 38 points. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci got the other first and was fourth with 32 points.

``I'm numb,'' Joyner-Kersee said when told of the vote. ``I can't find the words to describe how I feel.''

The other women in the top 10 were: gymnast Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia; Polish sprinter Irena Szewinska; Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser; U.S. sprinter Wilma Rudolph; Babe Didrikson; and Florence Griffith Joyner.

Lewis, known as King Carl after competing so often and so successfully internationally, was not recognised or glorified in the United States as much as he was overseas.

People's disaffection with him began at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where he won the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and anchored the U.S. 400-meter relay team to victory - the same four events Owens won at the 1936 Berlin Games. What upset the 100,000 spectators, many of whom booed, was Lewis' failure to take his final four attempts in the long jump.

They didn't understand he was trying to conserve his energy for the five races he had remaining, after having run six earlier.

At the 1988 Seoul Games, Lewis won golds in the 100 – after first-place finisher Ben Johnson was disqualified for using drugs - and long jump, and finished second in the 200 - his only Olympic event in which he failed to win a gold. He didn't get a shot at the relay gold because the U.S. team was disqualified for an illegal baton pass out of the zone in the opening round.

In 1992, Lewis was bothered by a virus at the U.S. Olympics trials and finished sixth in the 100, qualifying only for the long jump and relay.

He won golds in both events, getting revenge on world record-holder Mike Powell by winning his third gold medal in the long jump with his third jump beyond 28 feet. Powell, who finished second, had ended Lewis' 65-meet winning streak at the 1991 World Championships by setting the record of 29-4 1/2. Lewis had to be content with three 29-foot jumps.

At the 1996 Games, at 35, when he was not expected to be a contender, Lewis won his fourth consecutive long jump gold, landing a big jump early and daring anyone to beat it. No one did.

``The only experience left would be to become the all-time gold medal winner,'' Lewis said.

He never got the opportunity. His campaign to run in the 400 relay was rejected by the U.S. coaches, leaving Lewis tied with Nurmi, Spitz and Latynina for the most Olympic golds with nine each.

``The great thing about him as an athlete was that anytime there was pressure ... he always performed, whether it was his first race in Los Angeles or his last jump in Atlanta,'' said his business manager, Joe Douglas. ``That was something you see in very few athletes.''

Joyner-Kersee also had a long track and field career, before retiring in 1998, one year after Lewis.

Like Lewis, she competed in four Olympics, starting in 1984, when she finished second in the heptathlon, only five points behind Australia's Glynis Nunn, and fifth in the long jump.

In 1988, Joyner-Kersee, who was named Jacqueline after the wife of President Kennedy because her grandmother thought she would someday be ``The First Lady of something,'' was first in both the long jump and heptathlon. In the multievent competition, she set a world record of 7,291 points, a mark that still stands.

Joyner-Kersee won her second straight Olympic multievent gold in 1992 and took third in the long jump. At the 1996 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee was forced to withdraw from the heptathlon after severely injuring her right hamstring in the opening event, the 100 hurdles.

Courageously, she came back for the long jump, and electrified the crowd by coming from sixth place to grab third on her final attempt.

``A bronze medal was better than no medal and, at one point, I was in contention for no medal at all,'' she said. ``I earned that bronze medal and I'm very proud of it.''

Her husband and coach, Bob Kersee, was duly impressed.

``That last jump in 1996 showed me her championship heart,''

Kersee said. ``When I pulled her out of the heptathlon, I thought the injury could be career threatening. But she had a week to get ready for the long jump, and she showed her courage.

``I guess you can say she's the greatest.''