As we celebrate the intersection of music and running on Citius Mag’s Music Week, let’s re-visit one of the most infamous moments involving one of the sport’s legends. Before a 1993 Nets vs. Bulls game, Carl Lewis was called upon to sing the U.S. national anthem. What unfolded was not so great, but pre-YouTube era viral gold.
Before the performance
Many great athletes have tried their hand at a musical career to capitalize on their marketing prime. There’s rap records by NBA legends Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. (There was actually a fantastic piece on Bryant’s rap career on Grantland back in 2014.) Deion Sanders covered “Must Be the Money.” USMNT star Clint Dempsey has a few rap videos as well. Most recently, Metta World Peace has stayed in the headlines with his own music video. They’ll sell some records but many times, we end up with flops.
At the 1984 Olympics, Lewis won gold in 100 meters, 200 meters, 4×100 meter relay and long jump to match a medal haul by Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympics. Lewis garnered some attention for his 1987 music video for “Break It Up.” I hate to throw around the “Must watch” label but this is certainly worth your time:
Rihanna and Sean Paul later released a song by the same title. Their track might have been better but I’ll watch this music video any day of the week. (Aside: If you’re the old lady that hops in the sauna with Carl Lewis or know who she is, please email us at [email protected] and we would like to have a word.)
You can’t blame Lewis for giving this a try.
He also started taking up a couple acting gigs including playing a Miami police officer in the 1987 film “Dirty Laundry.” The movie’s plot line on Rotten Tomatoes makes it sound like an early version of “Rat Race.”
The infamous anthem
It was a performance that Charley Steiner of ESPN perfectly dubbed “Francis Scott Off-Key.” It’s also not Lewis’ first national anthem. There is no video of it but Getty Images has a photograph of Lewis singing the national anthem at the 18th Vitalis Olympic Invitational in East Rutherford, New Jersey. We weren’t there (I wasn’t even alive yet) to know if that went any better but instead we’re left with the other New Jersey mishap.
Right from the “OOOOOH say” you know that this is not going to end well and as shown in the video, the players tried to contain themselves. Michael Jordan, who would drop 30 points in the Bulls 107–94 win, managed to keep his composure from what we can see in the video. Others pulled their shirts over their face to hide the smiles and laughter.
Lewis may have forgotten some of the words and sounds like he says “Rick Flair” instead of “red glare” but he did show some self-awareness by telling the audience that he would redeem himself. The boos rained down but you have to credit Lewis for trying to get through that performance.
Years later, we find out a little bit more about why it may not have been the best idea to go out and do.
In a fairly recent interview with Oprah’s website for a Where are they Now piece, Lewis explained how he feels about the performance years later.
“I was actually under the weather and did not want to do it…but then you can’t back out. I shouldn’t have sang that day but I’m actually glad that it happened because it’s a part of your journey. The great thing about it – kids will come up and say I saw your anthem but I didn’t realize you were that fast. Some other people will go and say ‘Hahaha! Isn’t that funny?’ Well, if that’s how you want to define me, that’s your business. I’ve been on interviews and they’ll just laugh it up. I’ll say, ‘Isn’t it funny, my anthem from 25 years ago has been seen by more people than your show.’ [Laughs]”
Lewis’ name comes up often every four years with track in the spotlight of the Olympics but YouTube and Google searches for his name usually bring up “Carl Lewis national anthem” before other results. Two videos have 1.3 and 1.6 million views respectively so maybe the television comment is totally accurate but it seems like Lewis has found a way to move forward from that terrible day at Meadowlands Arena. For reference, one of his 100m world record videos has 1.9 million views and several others have about 50,000 or less.
Nothing great happens in New Jersey anyway.