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KING CARL

The final flight of Carl Lewis was about to depart toward greatness, and he dared you not to look.

There were sprinters on the other side of the track. There had been discus throwers and distance runners and hurdlers and steeplechasers, various performers whom Lewis always treated as his undercard. But now it was Lewis' turn, and he stood motionless at the end of the runway until the crowd darned well paid attention.

Always, he has drawn every eye, every camera, toward whatever he was doing. This night, above all others, would be no different.

After all, this was his night, his moment, his kingdom.

Turns out, it was all of that.

Carl Lewis leapt into history Monday night. His is a career of amazing moments stacked upon each other like gold bars in a vault. But for King Carl, the finest track and field performer in history, the very face of his sport, the final moment might have been his best.

He won.

Of course he won.

Winning is what Lewis does. He has spent 16 years _ four track lifetimes _ collecting gold medals, stepping up on podiums, listening to his national anthem. You think he would do anything else on the night of his goodbye party? You think he would let you remember him any other way?

Of course not. He is 35 now, and the hair has started to turn and the legs have started to go. But there is something inside Lewis that comes out when the lights are brightest, and some of that burns still.

He has nine Olympic gold medals now. Nine. Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and American swimmer Mark Spitz won nine, no other male did. Lewis has won the long jump in four straight Olympics. If the United States had not boycotted in Moscow, he could have won five. American Al Oerter won the discus four straight times, no one else did.

"Of all the medals, this is the most special," Lewis said. "It took the most focus. It took the most pain."

These Olympics have been tough on older athletes. Mary Slaney failed. And Janet Evans. And Linford Christie. And Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Lewis, too, seemed as if he were holding on. He made the long jump in the trials by all of 1 inch. He made the final on his last jump.

And he won.

"He's 35 years old, and he's jumping into a head wind," bronze medalist Joe Greene said. "That's incredible. It's incredible."

And so this is how we remember him: jogging around the track, holding an American flag in each hand, taking and giving one last moment. Daring you to remember anything else but his excellence. Daring anyone else to challenge his legacy.

The big leap came on his third try, when he roared down the runway, his hands straight as blades, and tried to place himself into orbit as he has a thousand times before. The measurement was 27-10}, and he covered his head in his hands as if he had amazed himself along with the rest of us. It was never challenged. If it had been, Lewis would have busted another one. Count on it.

He has owned this event, the way he has owned American rivals Greene and Mike Powell, who keep jumping after Lewis without success. Powell's night ended face down in the pit, a groin injury robbing whatever shot he had. Greene had the last shot at catching Lewis, but it was no shot at all.

You could tell the big leap was coming. It was just after 8 p.m., and the full moon had started to emerge from the clouds, and Lewis took the longest time at the end of the runway. And as he landed, it was obvious he had had a big jump. The only question was how far he had jumped.

It is a good question with Lewis. How far has he jumped? To the other side of forever, it seems.

In metaphor, he has been airborne since 1980, the world blurring past him, as he jumped toward history. He has leapt from Jimmy Carter to Billy Payne, from under-the-table payments to the trackstyles of the rich and famous, from Mount St. Helens to Centennial Park.

Along the journey, there have been changes in the sport, changes in the world, changes in Lewis. Measure his jumps from end to end, and he could fly to the moon.

He was never embraceable like Mary Lou Retton, never regal like Florence Griffith Joyner, never sympathetic like Dan O'Brien, never flamboyant like Oscar De La Hoya. In 1984, he was too packaged, too slick. In 1988, he was too arrogant, too whiny. It was not until 1992, when he was supposed to be too old, too used, that his image began to soften.

Now, he seems a wisened veteran, appreciative of his legacy. Time has smoothed much of Lewis' rough edges. Now, as he retires, it can embrace him.

With Lewis, it has not always been that way. Critics _ and many are track stars _ accused him of being self-absorbed and selfish. Even Lewis admits some people wish he had won 20 medals and some wish he would break a leg every time out.

He was booed for not going after a record with his last jump in '84. Teammates bristled when Lewis showed up for the flag-raising ceremony in Barcelona with a photographer in tow, especially since he was staying in a hotel. He suggested Powell's world record was a fluke. He has been blamed _ most recently by Michael Johnson _ for taking bigger fees to run in Europe rather than doing more to help his sport in his own country. Even here, he has lobbied to get into the 4x100 relay team. And you know what? I'd let him on it.

Whatever people have said about Lewis, the hallmark of his career has been excellence. He is a bottom-of-the-ninth performer, a guy to give the ball to in overtime. He feeds on pressure other athletes shrink from. That, more than anything, seemed important as Lewis waved farewell on that final victory lap. We have seen a legend say goodbye in legendary fashion.

Could it have been better? Oh, you can be greedy. Lewis had one jump left, and it would have been nice to see the fans pay him homage had he taken it. He could have stood one last time at the end of the runway, and flown toward the pit one last time, and leapt toward the moon one last time.

It would have been a nice final moment.

Then again, hasn't he given us enough?

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