LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps the greatest track and field athlete in U.S. history, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, says the sport is dying.
"Go back and look at the films of [the 1983 and 1987 world championships in] Rome and Helsinki," he said. "There were 60,000 people in the stands. They couldn't get 25,000 in Russia [in 2013]. That's the problem with track and field. We're always looking at each other and saying, 'Aren't we great?' No, we're competing against the world, and that's why track is dying.
"We've got to stop looking at each other and saying how great we are. The sport is dying. It's dying."
Lewis spoke at length on several subjects related to his sport, including Sebastian Coe and the IAAF. Now coaching at the University of Houston, Lewis also talked about reasons American men have won few gold medals recently.
"I think it's systemic in America," he said. "No. 1, we no longer have physical education in schools. That's where it starts. A lot of kids are not getting involved. They are not learning to compete. Before, we had P.E. teachers. Now, we have paid coaches.
"No. 2, in non-revenue sports, the coach is now the math teacher, not the P.E. teacher. They don't understand biomechanics and movement. When I get kids in college, I have to fix so much about their running, it's amazing to me. They're teaching things that are incorrect -- the way they're running, what they're doing, all these things that high school coaches don't know.
"Also, I think we're in a culture of mediocrity in America. You don't have to win to get anything now. You go to a high school track meet now, as opposed to 25 years ago, the kids get a medal and they walk around all day with the medal. In our day, I put the medal in my bag and ran to the next event."
Just look at the long jump.
"[It's] the worst event right now. It's awful," Lewis said. "Everyone is like, 'I'm an Olympic champion.' Jesse Owens would have been third in the last Olympics with his personal best 80 years ago.
"They don't know how to jump, and they're not trying to because they're winning the medals anyway. That's the bottom line."
U.S. gold medalist LaShawn Merritt, a sprinter,did not agree the sport is dying, citing the many meets he competes in around the globe.
"I see a lot of support across the world,'' he said. "Now, in the U.S., [Lewis] was competing back when it was a little different I guess, but in the world, I still see a lot of people at these meets.''
On the subject of why U.S. women are still performing well at the Olympics, Lewis said, "Women are still pushing for their identity. ... Women, to me, are tougher. In training and working, they're ready to do it. They feel the struggle more. I think the guys have gotten settled to America was so great all those years. Remember, 25 years ago, Evelyn Ashford had to fight through the East Germans and Russians. The women were the ones getting beat, and the men were dominating. Now, it's flopped because the women fought their way to the top."
U.S. sprinter and Olympic hopeful English Gardner said she doesn't think the sport is dying, but that it needs more attention.
"I think it doesn't have as much awareness as it used to,'' Gardner said. "What made me fall in love with the sport was meeting Gail Devers and actually getting to see a legend, being able to touch a legend. Hearing her stories and being able to learn something from that. That's what the sport needs. The sport just needs more awareness for kids.
"I don't see it dying. This sport was created many, many years before there [were] sponsorships, before there [were] meets, before there was a USATF. The ancient Greeks used to do it. It's a test of human strength. This sport can never die. But it also can always get more awareness.''