For the Alabama-born, University of Houston scholar, control over his life came in the form of adopting very practical, very genuine routes towards his life goals. “My investment of time couldn’t be just on the track – I took speech classes, I read books, I also started going to the Grammys, the Emmys, the American Music Awards, because I wanted to see how artists presented themselves; I wanted to talk to them about image,” he says. “It sounds crazy now but this was 35 years ago – we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have managers, we didn’t have all of this stuff that we have today.
“In my head, it was clear I was using my career to build a brand that I would be able to leverage for the rest of my life, because I knew whatever I did in the athletics stadium it could all be taken away from me very quickly, along with everything I invested in getting to the top, and I wasn’t willing for that to happen. I had to control this thing way beyond what any traditional athlete would.”
To return to the concept of the icon, does such an unconventional pursuit of fame, such an unusual perception of success, put Lewis in this category? Is the mark of someone truly special as much to do with the process as it is the end result?
Certainly, sporting greats are rare because their lifespan at “the top” is so limited and the descent from the top can be so brutal. Yet Lewis staked his claim. Joint second on the list of multiple Olympic gold medallists with nine golds. Able to put his name to 14 of the 20 longest jumps in history. The first man to qualify for five Olympic long-jump events and one of only three Olympians to win the same individual event in four consecutive Olympic Games.
Post-retirement, he was named World Athlete of the Century by the IAAF, Sportsman of the Century by the IOC and Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated magazine. But just as important as all of those accolades, when the time came to retire in 1997, Lewis already had his next move planned.