Carl Lewis won his ninth Olympic gold in Atlanta

In July and August 1996, the world sent its finest athletes to Atlanta. Some athletes came as familiar names from familiar nations. Others had toiled in obscurity. Each came proudly to Atlanta, and Atlanta received them in the same manner. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of those Summer Games, the AJC presents a series of 20 memorable athletes and performances.

The 19th in the series: Carl Lewis brings his gold-medal total to nine.

He came to Atlanta in the summer of 1996 as a 35-year-old Olympic legend, already a winner of eight gold medals in track and field.

Carl Lewis capped his career and polished his place in Olympic lore by winning the long jump with a leap of 27 feet, 10 3/4 inches at the Atlanta Games.

That made him the fourth Olympian to win nine gold medals, joining Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina.

“The ninth one is the most special,” Lewis said that night, July 29, 1996. “It took the most focus, the most pain.”

Twenty years later, Lewis, now 55, is an assistant track coach at his alma mater, the University of Houston, focusing, of course, on sprints and jumps, trying to develop future Olympians.

“I’m not looking for the next Carl Lewis,” he recently told ESPN.com. “Is there a nine-time gold medalist that I’m going to coach? Ninety-nine times out of 100, no. Is there an Olympian of the Century? I won’t know because I’ll be dead.

“I tell these kids, ‘I come out here all the time, so I need you to give the effort. There is not really much you can give me except for the satisfaction of winning.’”

Lewis also is part of the effort to bring the Olympics back to the United States — specifically, to Los Angeles — in 2024.

“It’s no secret that every Olympic bid must put a great deal of effort into the technical plan,” Lewis said at a U.S. Olympic media summit in L.A. earlier this year. “This means bids must have great venues, hotels, transportation, even security. But bids must also have a strong brand identity.

“There’s an intangible about the bids that people often forget. It’s really the secret weapon of any Olympic host city, and that secret is the city’s people.”

When Lewis won his ninth Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, no one had won more, although U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps has since shattered the record by winning 18 in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games.

Lewis’ last hurrah in Atlanta came 12 years after he won four gold medals — in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 4x100 relay and long jump — at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He won two golds in Seoul in 1988 (100 and long jump) and two more in Barcelona in 1992 (4x100 relay and long jump). He also won a silver in 1988 at Seoul.

All of that brought “King Carl” — subsequently named “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated — to Atlanta seeking his record-tying ninth gold, which would be his last. He retired from competition in 1997.

His only event in the 1996 Games was the long jump after he failed to make the team in the 100-meter dash and wasn’t chosen for the 400-meter relay.

By winning the long jump before a crowd of 82,773 at the Olympic stadium, which was down-sized into Turner Field, he joined discus thrower Al Oerter as the only Olympians to claim four consecutive gold medals in a single individual event.

Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly wrote at the time of Lewis’ Olympics farewell: “You try to give a man a gold watch, and he steals your gold medal instead. You ask him to pass the torch, and he sets your Olympics on fire.”

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