With the Tokyo Olympics set to begin on July 23, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis might not be running circles around his competition anymore in the 100-meter dash, but he’ll still be very much involved in the festivities. Aside from coaching the next generation of superstar talent, he’s partnered with Silk (of dairy-substitute fame, not the R&B group, y’all) to bless five HBCU track and field programs throughout the country with $10,000 donations to offset the costs of uniforms, equipment, and transportation. And in an interview with The Root, the track and field legend discussed his decision to address the funding discrepancies that so many HBCU athletic programs face, his excitement for the Summer Olympics, and how the sport has evolved since his heyday.
“I’m really excited about partnering with Silk to make sure that we give these HBCU track and field programs a bit of a boost,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of the same resources that a lot of the big universities do. And coming from the University of Houston, which is also not a Power Five school, I can see the disparity in these programs.”
He continued, “The other message is that no matter what, [HBCUs are] still great programs to go to. They’ve added so much richness to our society, and in many cases, they gave an opportunity when people didn’t have an opportunity at all. So I think it’s a special time for us to do [this with Silk]. I’m looking forward to it. Especially in track and field, where we have programs like North Carolina A&T who were really successful at the national championships this year. Let’s keep that momentum going by supporting these programs and give them a chance to expand what they’re doing.”
As to what inspired Lewis to get more involved in supporting HBCU track and field programs with additional resources and funding, the 60-year-old points to the fact that there’s a level of personal enrichment that students can only receive by attending these schools and that students shouldn’t feel like they have to compromise in other aspects of their collegiate pursuits.
“It’s the coach and the school, not the conference,” he said. “When I came to the University of Houston, the facilities were terrible back then, and they’ve improved dramatically since. But I didn’t realize it until I got here. I went, ‘Oh, really?‘ Because I wasn’t coming here for the facility, I came here for the mentorship. And so if I didn’t go here, you wouldn’t know me. But look how many people have gone to HBCUs and if they hadn’t gone there, you wouldn’t know them.”
As we are all well aware, these Olympic games will be held under the duress of a year delay and a coronavirus pandemic that’s still raging through much of the globe. But despite these factors, Lewis shared his excitement for what’s to come.
“The biggest thing for me is I’m just so happy it’s happening,” he said. “I made the Olympic team in 1980. I was 18 years old and President Carter stepped in and said, ‘We’re not going.’ So my first Olympics was boycotted. Well, a lot of these athletes [it’s] their first Olympic Games and they had the pandemic. Well, guess what? When the pandemic happened they had town hall meetings. They had discussions. The athletes understood it. They rallied around the decision. And then a year later, they get a chance to be rewarded for that.”
He continued, “I’m so excited about the games, and I’m really thankful to Japan and the [International Olympic Committee] because there’s so many factors saying, ‘Let’s stop it.’ Well, you’re talking about people’s lives. And I just have to stand up to them and say, ‘No, we’re going to do this for these people.’ Last year, they stood by us. We’re going to stand by them and it’s going to be a tremendous games. I’m excited for the athletes and I look forward to them going out and representing their countries. And the whole world coming together like they do every single four years, in this case.”
Lewis also discussed how the Olympics have evolved since his debut in the ‘80s.
“The greatest thing about how it’s evolved is that now it’s open and they can make money,” he said. “That’s the number one issue. Full stop. It’s about the Benjamins, you know? It’s made the events better because in the past, you couldn’t have a Simone Biles go to two or possibly three Olympics because they stopped [competing] to do commercials.”
If anyone can speak to this fact, it’s Lewis. After collecting four gold medals in 1984, his failure to secure big money endorsements afterward was well documented. Many pinned it on his lack of marketability due to his celebratory nature and rumors that circulated about his sexuality, but the fact remains that Lewis should’ve been cashed out and he wasn’t.
Another change that Lewis is fond of is how technology has made the Olympics more universal than ever before.
“Television has always been a part of the Olympics, but with television and technology now it’s in the way we’re telling these stories and showing things behind the scenes,” he said. “The third thing is social media is the ultimate social media because the entire world is watching at one time. Now you could communicate with the whole world about any subject. It’s a positive, uplifting thing, unlike what we had to deal with the last four years.”
And thanks to Carl and Silk, we’ll be seeing more and more HBCU athletes on the biggest stage for years to come. To learn more about Carl’s Silk Team Protein initiative with Silk and how you can support or participate, visit their website.