During the 1980s and 1990s, Lewis won 10 Olympic medals including nine gold medals and 10 World Championships medals eight of them, gold medals.
Lewis is currently a motivational speaker and is in Nairobi to attend a ‘Business Connect’ forum organised by IBM.
I accompany my colleague from Capital FM Sport for an interview and as we go on, I discover that Lewis has not only been an athlete, but an entrepreneur all through. His career is a business.
Q. First of all, who is Carl Lewis?
One of the things I have to do to keep my ‘business’ going is to walk around and be recognized. I am a brand. That is, understanding that my body is part of my business. Secondly, I have been great in sports but I don’t mind working on other things, going places, because I am afraid of being broke. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be broke, maybe back in high school, and I don’t mind working hard for that. I get up every day and say to myself that I am the luckiest person in the world. I am lucky because I have two wonderful parents who were teachers and educators. They gave me the guidelines on how to be successfully.
Q. Why should athletes take themselves as a business?
The biggest problem is that athletes do look at themselves as a business. When I sat down with my coach one time at 18 years old, he asked me what I wanted out of Houston (University of Houston). I told him that all I wanted is to be a millionaire; I never wanted a real job. But he told me that if I focused on money I will never be successful. We had to focus on competition. Money will follow. So what I did then is that I became the CEO of my business.
Q. If you have been a business, what then did you do to be consistent?
First of all I had the best coach in the 20th Century and I had one manager. But at the end of the day, I ran the show. I was a business, so I ran the show. I met with my coach for competition, I met with my manager for managing things, but I was in control. My career was a vision that I saw, I took control. But athletes of today, they don’t want to do that. All they do is sit back and allow their managers to tell them what to do. The number one person I talked to in my career was my coach and my manager knew that, never question it. Most of the athletes complain…’oh, my manager did this, did that’. I mean, you hired him! That means you are not in charge of your business. How can a business be successful if you can give power to someone else? For example we say this is IBM and we are going to give so and so power to run our business, and we will be great and successful. Impossible!
Q. Most of the athletes become broke after retiring while others are completely forgotten. How have you managed to remain relevant?
I will tell you for a fact, in United States only, more than 70 percent of athletes have lost all their earnings within two years of retirement. Why? Because they don’t plan. They don’t have a ‘business’. Sometimes you have to be shrewd. And you know what? Managers want that type of a person. I went to University of Houston for Speech Communication. In the 80s during my career, I took acting lessons, I recorded music, I worked for a television station and radio station. That is, I started thinking about retirement the day I started running. I said, ‘I am going to probably do running until my mid twenties. So what I am I going to do for the rest of my 60 years?’ Secondly, I always think three to five years in the future. I question anyone in business, whether sports, entertainment; anything. Then map your plan and keep going. There is what I am doing here with IBM and other endorsement deals, or being the UN Ambassador which I love so much because I travel all over the world. That is, it’s not a matter of I hope someone calls me; I make sure they need me.
Q. You are in this IBM event which is focusing more on technology yet you are an athlete. How do those connect?
First of all, this is a great place (Nairobi) to come. I have never been here before though I have visited several countries in Africa. But I think the relationship works. We have a lot of things in common with IBM. IBM has been there for a long time, they are innovators and inventing the future and it’s kind of what I try to do. I had a long career, being World record holder and still looking ahead. Meanwhile in any business, you have to embrace technology or otherwise you will be left in the past. It is as simple as that. It’s a way of building your brand.
Q. What is different between now and in the 80s as far as technology is concerned?
The biggest thing that is different from 1984 and now is that, if they had Twitter in those days, my career would have been different. You know there was so much misinformation and I think every athlete understands that. But I could have corrected many things immediately. I could have gone on my page and tell my story and I think that’s a huge advantage that we have now. Athletes don’t have to rely on reporters who sometime respect them and sometime don’t like them.
Q. How far can you run now?
I absolutely have no clue how fast or far I would run. I mean, my career is a piece of paper. You read my career in book or read it on the internet. That’s it. And I don’t look back at all. It is not a chapter, but that whole book is closed. But it was a great book, people love it and I love writing that book.