HERSHEY - It would take something pretty important to take Carl Lewis away from the Olympics.
The five-time Olympian - and nine-time gold medalist who matched the legendary Jesse Owens by winning four golds in one Olympics and was just the second Olympian to win gold in the same event four times - was in London last week for the 30th Olympiad.
But on Saturday, he was in Chocolate Town USA to watch teens and preteens compete.
Sentinel photo by JEFF FISHBEIN
Carl Lewis, left, reacts to a participant Saturday at Hershey’s Track and Field Games North American finals.
Rafer Johnson finished his Olympic career before most of the parents of those kids were born.
He's missed only two of the Hershey's Track and Field Games North American finals in the 35 years the program has been in place.
Johnson, the grand marshal of the games and their spokesman, and Lewis were the celebrities of the day as the championship events played out at Milton Hershey School's Henry Hershey Stadium.
J.P. Bilbrey, president and CEO of The Hershey Co., said the event was like oxygen, an inspiration.
"We're all about kids and this is just right in the heart of what we do as a company," said the corporate leader, once a track athlete himself. "I think for all of us that help with the event, it's good for us to be with all these kids."
The games covers ages 9 to 14 in three different age groups, with running, throwing and jumping events in a recreational setting. Longer runs are contested by older participants, with a relay at the 13 to 14 age level.
Aside from the technological advancements, Johnson said little has changed about the sport since he won silver and gold in the decathlon in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, respectively.
"The athletes still work hard. They're motivated. They train hard. Their hearts are ready, their minds are ready," he said. "We approached it the same way."
Then he thought about another difference, something that was not an option for a young man coming home from Rome - the chance to turn a track and field career into a commercial interest.
"We had none of that. That's not the reason we were there - we were there because we loved the sport," he said. "But there was nothing at the end."
Oddly enough, both Johnson and Lewis had the chance to play other pro sports, having been drafted by NFL and NBA teams. And Lewis, named "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee, had a few endorsement offers in his prime, but he wasn't in line for the same kind of treatment as other professional athletes.
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford said on the eve of this year's Olympics that track, along with gymnastics, swimming and other Olympic sports, would get its quadrennial time in the spotlight and then go back into hibernation.
"That's usually the case," Johnson admitted. "It's getting better now because our Olympics go every two years. But I think with television, and particularly with the coverage NBC's giving the games this year, people are going to remember some of those performances."
Track's relative obscurity is a shame, both of the athletes say, because of the benefits the sport offers - starting with overall health improvement, and a means of cutting into problematic youth obesity.
"The problem we face now is that in the old days there were no distractions for kids - they actually had to create their own fun. They had to go outside," Lewis said. "The challenge now is with parents. Parents have to engage themselves more into it."
Lewis, still fit but no longer inclined to try and run the 100-meter dash in under 10 seconds, said he doesn't need to live in the past, and wants the kids taking part in Hershey's games to remember the present, too.
"I know that when I was running at this age my parents were coaches, there were hundreds of kids out on that track team, they were all my friends. It was just the greatest time in the world," he said, recalling growing up in New Jersey without ever visiting the Jersey Shore - because he was at a track meet.
"It was the best life I could live. Our family was together all the time," he said. "I look in the stands and these are all parents, and they came to Hersheypark with them, and they're here. They're doing it as a family, and I think that's the greatest thing about track and field."
The man whose career is covered in chocolate says the same.
"To me it's a very real and organic kind of event. You have kids from all over the country - it brings them together," Bilbrey said. "It's all about common interest and they have great fun."