The sport of track and field has seldom seen his like. In fact, the athlete he's most often compared to became a legend half a century ago. Even so, Carl Lewis seems unburdened by being a superstar heading into Olympic competition. The weight of expectations rests as lightly as a down pillow on his square shoulders. Lewis is confident that he can win four gold medals - just as Jesse Owens did at Berlin in 1936.
''When I'm ready to get down, I can do it,'' says Lewis, looking chic in white-frame sunglasses, a mod turquoise jersey, and white leather shorts.
And get down he did at last month's US Olympic Trials, where he won the 100- and 200-meter sprints, plus the long jump. Those are the same events in which Owens won individual gold medals - and, like Owens, Lewis could add a fourth in the 4 x 100 relay.
The quest begins today with heats in the 100, and continues in one or another of his events on six more days.
Physically, Carl says, such a busy schedule presents no problem, but ''to be completely prepared mentally day after day is more difficult.'' He's been through it before, though, having won three gold medals at the first-ever World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki last summer. And, of course, he had to follow the same sort of regimen in the trials.
One person who isn't surprised by all that Lewis has accomplished so far is Larry Ellis, the Princeton University coach who also coaches the US men's Olympic track team. Ellis first saw Carl compete in a high school meet and was struck by his potential. ''He had the classic form even then,'' he recalls.
The product of a track family (both parents coach the sport in Willingboro, N.J., and a sister, Carol, is an Olympic long jumper), Lewis went on to collegiate stardom at the University of Houston, where highly respected mentor Tom Tellez further refined his talents.
Tellez says that with all of Carl's tremendous physical tools, the real champion lies below the symphony of sinew. ''A lot of people think of sprinting as simply running from one point to another,'' he notes, ''but it takes good technique and a lot of mental discipline, and Carl has both. He's made sprinting a science.
''I've been around some great athletes, but Carl's more aware of what's going on in his events than any I've known. He also has the mental stability to do what you ask him to do under stress.''
Lewis, in turn, credits Tellez with teaching him the importance of relaxation in competition. The key to sprinting, he says, is to find one's maximum speed quickly, then drop into cruise control.
''Everyone knows you come out of the blocks and accelerate,'' Carl says, ''but when you can't accelerate any longer, you just settle in and try to maintain. That's something people have to feel out. You ask yourself, 'Where do I hit that speed, when I get this feeling or that feeling?' ''
Surprisingly, Lewis doesn't yet own any world records. But all that separates him from equaling three such marks are 4/100ths of a second in the 100 meters, 3 /100ths of a second in the 200 meters, and 33/4 inches in the long jump.
The latter target, of course, is Bob Beamon's 29 ft. 21/2 in. leap in the thin air of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics - a mark long considered almost untouchable. The current world 100- and 200-meter marks also were set at high altitude, while Lewis's personal records - 9.97 seconds for the 100 meters, 19. 75 seconds for the 200 meters, and a 28 foot, 103/4 inch long jump - have all come at sea level. ''I feel good about that,'' he says.
With 90,000 spectators rooting for him at the L.A. Coliseum, Carl may run faster and jump farther than ever before. Possibly militating against such efforts, however, are the stadium's swirling winds and those grueling seven days on which he'll have to compete.
The trials, for example, pretty much simulated what Carl will face in the Olympics in terms of a schedule - and while he came through that meet with flying colors, he set no new marks.
Lewis would like to be a record-breaker, of course, but he is not obsessed by the pursuit. He says, in fact, that he thinks there's too much emphasis placed on that aspect of his sport nowadays rather than on winning - which is supposed to be the main idea of competition.
''When the NBA championship game came on, everybody was thinking about who's going to win, not, 'Can Magic (Johnson) get the most assists?' or 'Can Larry Bird break the career scoring record? '' he said. ''That's the way the Super Bowl is, too. But track is getting away from this, and I think it's hurt the sport.''
And regardless of records, Carl feels that he has already made a major impact on his sport.
''In the long jump, I broke down all the mental barriers,'' he observes. ''Sprinters have been running really fast the last two years, and I think I've helped there, too.''
Carl is superb on his feet, both on the track and when fielding questions with a smoothness befitting a former TV-radio major at the University of Houston. He belongs in the limelight - and finds himself there more and more.
Reporters besieged him here until Joe Douglas, his personal manager, called a halt. ''He was getting 14 interview requests a day and trying to accommodate everybody,'' says Douglas, who doubles as president of the club Carl runs for, the Santa Monica Track Club.
Lewis not only makes great copy, he is also photogenic - as nearly everyone knows now via the appearance of his boyishly handsome face on the covers of Time , Newsweek, and numerous other publications. He's also a favorite picture candidate at the track, whether striding around the infield in his flashy, tailored warm-ups or crossing the finish line.
Carl is also a joyous winner who raises his arms and breaks into a blue-ribbon smile - sometimes before the instant of victory. Downshifting gradually, he allows his momentum to carry him well around the track.
Such celebrations are not always well received. Some rivals accuse him of hot-dogging. Lewis, however, says, ''I just react.'' And Douglas, who feels it's important for athletes to show emotion, encourages such displays.
''I've seen too many great ones who didn't communicate to the fans what they really felt,'' Douglas says.
Lewis feels the seeds of his success were planted long ago in the stable home atmosphere provided by his parents.
''I think that stability was the most important thing in allowing Carol and me to compete at a very, very high level,'' he says. ''I'm very at ease with what I do. I'm not up tight because I realize people do support me. This let me be a little more relaxed younger, and I gained confidence as a result.''
As for the rosy financial future that appears on the horizon, Carl notes that ''everybody says if I do well in the Olympics I will be a millionaire.'' He is already living comfortably enough, however, that the financial incentives aren't his primary concern. And that's putting it mildly, because under today's liberalized track rules, Carl is only very loosely still an amateur - as his $ 175,000 Houston home, his BMW auto, his crystal collection, and his management team (C.L. Productions) amply attest.
''The only thing I'd like to have after the Olympics is the chance to do what I'd like outside of track and field,'' Lewis told a group of reporters here.
That could be any number of things. He has studied acting at the Warren Robertson Theatre Workshop in Manhattan and worked as a sportscaster with ABC's Houston affiliate. Most recently he turned crooner, cutting a single called ''Going for the Gold.''
Asked to sing a few bars here, though, he begged off. ''Running has killed my voice,'' he explained.
But does he think he'll be bigger than Michael Jackson as a result of the Olympics? ''Physically, definitely,'' came his tongue-in-cheek reply. ''I'll never be able to sing as good as him, but I don't think he'll ever be able to run like me, either.''