On this day in 1996, track and field legend Carl Lewis wins his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the long jump. It was the ninth and final Olympic gold of his storied career.
Frederick Carlton Lewis was born July 11, 1961, in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in a middle-class community in New Jersey. As a teenager, Lewis met Olympic champion Jesse Owens, who became his hero. He participated in track and field, but was undersized until high school, when he grew the long legs that help a sprinter cover ground and underwent a huge growth spurt that forced him to walk with crutches for three months while he fine-tuned his gait. Once fully developed at 6 feet 2 inches tall, Lewis set a national high school record in the long jump with a 26-foot-8-inch leap.
After a standout career at the University of Houston, Lewis won the 100 meters, 200 meters and the long jump at the 1983 National Championships, and entered the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as the top-ranked sprinter in the world. There, he met his goal of four gold medals, winning the long jump, the 100 meters, the 200 meters and anchoring the victorious U.S. team in the 4 x 100 meter relay.
Four years later, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Lewis lost the 100 meters to Canada’s Ben Johnson but won gold in the long jump with a distance of 28’ 7 ¼”. After it was found he had used performance-enhancing drugs, Johnson was stripped of the gold medal, which was then awarded to Lewis. The 1992 Olympics–the third of his career–was another triumph for Lewis. He again brought home gold in the 4 x 100 meter relay and in the long jump–his third long jump gold in a row–this time with a distance of 28’ 5 ½”.
By the time the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta rolled around, Lewis was 35 years old. Though he was still admired around the world for his previous Olympic triumphs, he had barely managed to qualify for the U.S. team in the long jump and most experts believed he’d be lucky to medal, let alone win another gold. Going into the last of his three jumps, Lewis trailed Emmanuel Bangue of France and his leading jump of 26’ 10 ½” by two inches. Lewis took off cleanly after a smooth sprint and landed face down, but knowing instinctively that the jump had secured him first place, he quickly got to his feet and raised his arms in triumph. His mark of 27’ 10 ¾” was his longest in two years–a full foot ahead of Bangue—and good enough for his fourth consecutive gold in the long jump.
The win at Atlanta made Lewis the first Olympian since American discus thrower Al Oerter to win the same event four times. His career is considered among the greatest in track and field history.