By Rituraj Borkakoty
Growing up in the early 1990s, Carl Lewis was as big an icon for us as Michael Jordan, Diego Maradona and Steffi Graf — people who made sporting history. People who we thought always had the luxury of driving fancy cars and flying around the world in private jets.
Well, if you ask Lewis, one of the greatest Olympians the world has ever seen, he will probably just smile and tell you: ‘No son, that’s not quite true. Yes, we were famous, but we were poor!’
In his own words, becoming ‘rich and famous’ was the biggest goal for Lewis when he was growing up in America in the 1970s.
But by the time he became an Olympic and world championship-winning track and field star, in the 1980s, Lewis realised athletes don’t make money like the superstars in the NBA, baseball, boxing, tennis or football — the American one as well as the non-American one, which the Americans call soccer.
Lewis, whose nine Olympic gold medals came in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump events, recently told the audience at the International Sports Innovation Conference in Dubai that his journey as athlete was not just about producing those lung-busting runs to win gold medals for America, but it was also about fighting for the rights of the elite athletes.
Things, he said, started improving slowly for them in the 1980s.
And when I finally got the chance to speak to this iconic sportsman, I couldn’t resist the temptation of asking him if things have got better now; if elite track and field stars were now making very good money.
“Look, no one gets as much as they deserve in anything. Let’s just make that clear,” he smiled.
“You know, my first book is called Inside Track. What I really wanted to mean is that we were the ‘professional amateurs’ because we were fighting for something,” he said.
“So the athletes in my time had a common goal. We were amateur athletes acting like professionals. We were trying to change the situation. Now that we managed to achieve that to some extent, they are now professional amateurs. They are professional in mind, but their body, spirit and soul still act like amateurs. So, therein lies the problem!”
But the problem for me was that I was allowed to ask him only one more question.
So I chose a subject that has always intrigued me: why can’t Asian athletes compete at the highest level with the Americans, Europeans, Africans and the Jamaicans?
What is that element that we are missing?
“Well, it’s the exposure,” the great man replied.
“When I came through the 1980s, the Europeans were dominating the middle distances. They were very successful. Also, what happened is lot of African athletes started coming to American colleges and they started getting opportunities. Now Africa is successful.
“So, what it comes down to is, you need to have a commitment in your community for people to start having success. And then everyone follows it.
“Japan is an example. Japan have sprinters now. Who could have imagined that 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago? And now they have sprinters.
“So it’s the exposure. It’s starts there. It’s also a generational issue. In the 1970s, African athletes started coming to America to run distances, you know, then one or two generations later, Africans became successful.
“So it’s the same thing here in Asia. Athletics has only started growing in Asia maybe five or 10 years ago. They have slowly realised that they can compete. So you know, it’s going to take 20 to 30 years for them to become successful at the highest level.”
Rituraj’s greatest sporting success came 31 years ago when he finished last in the school 100m final