Carl Lewis obviously is best known as an Olympic champion, amassing nine gold medals and one silver over the course of four Olympics.
But Lewis, now 52, also was involved in one of the most memorable tire ad campaigns ever for Pirelli. It started with a 1994 ad that featured a photo of Lewis taken by Annie Leibovitz in a runner's starting stance, sporting a pair of bright red, high-heel pumps.
That was followed by a worldwide advertising campaign that included a commercial with Lewis—complete with Pirelli treads on his feet—running on water and scaling the Statue of Liberty.
Lewis was at the Rubber Division meeting as guest speaker at a Dow Elastomers event to discuss details of its upcoming new EPDM plant.
The Olympic champion said he has fond memories of the campaign nearly 20 years ago. "When they first came to me, they came up with the idea of the print ad with the high heels," Lewis said after his talk. "That was Annie Leibovitz. She called, and everybody said, "Oh my God, you're not going to do an ad in pumps.' "
But the famous photographer wouldn't be deterred, flying to Houston to meet with Lewis. "She said, "Carl, we've got to do this ad,' " Lewis recalled. " "I don't care what they say—your management people or your momma. I don't care. We have to do this ad.' "
Leibovitz's strong sales pitch sold Lewis on the idea. "She looked me right in the face—and I had done a shot with her before—and I said, "If you're that strong on it and you're going to make it right, then let's do it.' "
So they shot the ad, and it made a big splash, leading Pirelli to come back and expand on the campaign. "We went on a weeklong tour, in New York shooting on buildings, and in Arizona," Lewis said. "It was a great idea, and she saw it all the way through."
At the Dow event, Lewis candidly shared his thoughts about the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports, during his time as a competitor and today.
He discussed Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who beat Lewis in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Johnson tested positive for drugs and was stripped of his gold medal. Lewis said he doesn't have a lot of ill will toward Johnson and believes Johnson's coach orchestrated the violations.
He said he talked with Johnson a couple of times after the games, and he tried to advise him to use it as an opportunity to admit his mistake and find a positive way to move forward. Johnson, however, chose to play the "blame game," according to Lewis. "I think he lost 25 years of his life just blaming instead of moving on. That's the sad part."
Lewis recently joined the staff of his alma mater, the University of Houston, as a volunteer coach for the track team, helping his former teammate Leroy Burrell, who is head coach.
The issue, he said, isn't necessarily cut and dry. He believes it goes beyond sports, and that athletes are swayed by coaches and mentors who sometimes implore them to make the wrong choices. "There are many layers to it. A lot of times you have young athletes—18, 19 and 20—and you have a mentor you believe in and they say that's what you should do. It's a very complicated issue."