By Ken Stone
“Our sport is proving the definition of insanity,” he said.
With little prompting in a brief infield interview, the nine-time Olympic sprint and long jump champion critiqued American and world efforts to revive the sport.
Lewis, in his second year as an assistant track coach at his alma mater, the University of Houston, labeled events like mixed-gender relays for IAAF meets a “clown show.”
The one-time King Carl also blasted track’s world governing body for removing distance events from Diamond League meets starting next year. The circuit of 14 big-money events is mainly in Europe and Asia.
“I’m a sprinter, but I think cutting the distance races is a mistake — because you have 50 million runners in the world,” he told Scott Reid of The Orange County Register near the end of the meet at El Camino College in Torrance.
Instead of scrapping events such as the 5,000- and 10,000-meter track races, “we should be finding ways to get them in the stadium,” he said.
Lewis also lambasted American track authorities without using the acronym USATF — for the Indianapolis-based USA Track & Field, whose national championships serve as qualifying meets for Olympics and world championships.
“We have a great relay team,” he said of the Cougars, who took second at Mt. SAC in the men’s 4×100 and 4×400 and won an NCAA title last year in a collegiate record.
It’s not because he’s a great coach, he said.
“We have a great system that I teach. If I was teaching a bad system, we’d be the U.S. team the last 12 years,” a reference to a record of botched handoffs and relay miscues at world meets.
“My point is that we could have all the greatest athletes and the greatest personalities and [be] good looking,” he said. “But if they have a bad system, they cannot overcome it. And we’re proving that. So we’ve got to change the system.”
It wasn’t clear at what level the “system” needed change.
But his critique seemed to be comprehensive.
“I think the system is still tilted,” Lewis said. “I think we’re getting to a clown show point with these silly relays and mixed relays and two-plus-twos.”
He wasn’t against better marketing, however, saying national championships should have a banner on the field “instead of having a bunch of lines” to mark distances in the javelin and discus throws.
“Think about the visual, how you want to present yourself,” he said. “And also the athletes … have to understand that the sport has to change. There are too many athletes and we’re not a professional sport.”
On the other hand, he’d like to see a focus on “getting more meets.”
“Because that’s the problem. There’s no middle class,” he said. “There has to be a discussion. Now that I’m coaching athletes and they’re getting postcollegiate, I can see the same fighting among agents – and everyone’s doing it.”
Lewis, with a reputation for being outspoken in his athletic career and even recent years, was quotable but sometimes inscrutable Saturday as well.
“Look, we need to realize the sport needs a meal. Not fighting over crumbs,” he said. “There are some great athletes that can do some great things. So I hope that there’s a way that people can come and say, ‘Ya know, we need to start coming together, working with promoters, saying: We need more meets.’
“We shouldn’t be fighting over things. We’ve gone through this 10 or 12 years where the sport contracted, but we just had this false narrative that it was great.”
Reid, a longtime reporter of Olympic sports, began his chat by raising the issue of whether Michael Norman — whose 43.45 clocking in the 400 Saturday made world headlines — was peaking too early.
“I think that whole thing — Doha [world meet] is too late — is overblown,” Lewis began. “Everyone freaks out about that. And ‘Oh my God, it’s too early’ [to run historic times]. It’s just not a big deal. You train. You prepare.”
He reminded that Team USA competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in late September and October (where he won gold in the 100 after Canada’s Ben Johnson, the race-winner, was busted for doping).
“We ran the whole year,” he said. “I think he’ll be fine with that.”
How big for the sport are young talents like Norman, Noah Lyles and Sydney McLaughlin? Reid asked.
Lewis began a riff on financial support for athletes.
“To be honest, the United States has money,” he said. “And they have money to invest in our sport. If you have a bunch of countries that can’t afford it, then it really hurts the sport. And I think it’s great that the Americans are doing so well — and are back to kind of where they’re supposed to be. I think it’s tremendous.”
Asked whether he’d like to compete again in the adult age-group sport called masters track, Lewis, 57, demurred.
He said he travels 300 days a year and doesn’t have the time needed to be “excellent” in the sport.
“I saw Willie Gault today,” he said of the former NFL player and world-class hurdler and relay sprinter out of Tennessee who still runs sprints at 58. “I couldn’t touch Willie right now.”
Besides, Lewis said, if he mentioned he would run, “then it becomes a bunch of drama. It should be about the people who want to be there, that are dedicating their time. … So I love masters. It’s just not for me.”
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