Athletics-Carl Lewis
Athletics legend Carl Lewis holds court at the International Sports Creativity Conference in Dubai on Monday. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: Carl Lewis, arguably the best ever athlete to have graced the sport, feels that athletics cannot afford to wait for the next superstar to come and rescue the sport from the “steady, non-stop decline” for the last 20 years.

Speaking to Gulf News on the sidelines of the International Sports Creativity Conference, the man who was voted ‘Sportsman of 20th Century’ by the International Olympic Committee, minced no words in saying that his sport had been on a downward spiral and more attention has to be paid on developing it’s infra-structure — emulating the examples of European football leagues or franchise-based US sports leagues.

Asked if Christian Coleman, the 23-year-old American compatriot of Lewis who emerged as the fastest man in the last World Championships in Doha could be the ‘next big thing’ for athletics, the legend sounded a word of caution.

“We need to be careful about it. It’s a little lazy of our sport to always need a flagbearer. We are waiting for a superstar in our sport rather than invest in infra-structure. There are now issues with the Diamond Leagues which are dropping events like the middle distances — an event with hundreds of runners,” he said.

It’s been 22 long years that Lewis had hung up the spikes in 1997 — and despite Usain Bolt ruling our imagination for a period between 2008 and 2017 — the legend of the American simply refuses to die down. “I think it was my longevity as an athlete with which the fans could relate to. If someone became a fan of mine in 1982, he was still a fan 16 years later — so you could say that three generations of people followed my career,” said the winner of nine Olympic gold medals.

“I was a like a child actor ... you saw him make his debut and then grow up. When I competed, I wanted to go around the world, build my brand etc. But when I was on the track, I was honest and people understood that. I won, I lost and I came back — all these tapped into so many different emotions of so many different people,” said the 58-year-old, who now wears many hats like running the Carl Lewis Athletics programme with Houston University or being the Goodwill Amabassador of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations.

Asked what motivated his philanthropic work during the concluding session of the conference, titled ‘Champion Experience,’ Lewis said since his retirement, he was often driven by the idea of making a difference to people’s lives. “It was quite shocking to learn how many people go to bed hungry around the world daily. I thought that I ran fast, I jumped further — but how could I now make a difference to these people’s lives? I have done a lot of travel — from the Caribbean to Asia — taking up the issue of food safety,” said Lewis.

As a callow teenager, Lewis admitted his goal was: “I wanted to be famous, I wanted to be rich,” and had no qualms about admitting to the moderator’s question that he did “well enough.” Looking back, he now feels a sense of wonder that he hadn’t done badly in a journey from a eight-year-old who took the first steps in his first love — long jump — at the supervision of his mother. “My parents made a lot of difference in my life, they were incredible,” Lewis revealed the softer side — not forgetting to add that his “first coach” Evelyn turned 90 only two weeks back.

“When I grew up, there was absolutely no money in sport. I thought that if athletes in other sport can make money, why can’t we make it? I thought my journey in athletics saw the sport becoming professional from amateur — and that’s my contribution to the sport,’’ he signed off.