Although he was born in Alabama, he grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, in the Philadelphia area. At age 13, Lewis started to compete in the long jump. With his high sprinting speed, he also performed well in the sprint events. In 1980, he was selected for the US Olympic team, but the American boycott of the Games delayed Lewis' debut.
The following seasons, Lewis set seasons best performances in the 100 m and long jump. At the inaugural World Championships in 1983, Lewis won his first major titles, achieving victory in the 100 m, long jump and the 4 x 100 m relay events.
This made him a great favourite for success at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Also entering the 200 m, Lewis sought to equal Jesse Owens' performance of 1936 by winning these four events, which he did.
After he had repeated his 1983 performance at the World Championships in Rome in 1987, he was set for four more golds at the 1988 Olympics. However, things did not all go his way. He won the 100 m, but only after Ben Johnson had been disqualified for a doping offence. In the 200 m, he was surprisingly beaten by compatriot Joe DeLoach. The 4 x 100 m relay team was disqualified in the heats (with Lewis not even running) due to a bad exchange. Lewis had no problems defending his long jump title and headed an all-American podium.
After 1988, Lewis' dominance in the sprint events began to wane, though his long jump performance was still excellent. However, he was challenged in that event as well, as compatriot Mike Powell won an exciting duel at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, in which the legendary record of Bob Beamon from 1968 was finally broken.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, another duel between the two was decided in favour of Lewis, winning his third consecutive Olympic long jump title. Lewis also ran the last leg of the American 4 x 100 m team.
In the years that followed, Lewis did not win any major titles. In 1996 - aged 36 - he made a strong comeback in the long jump event, and made a bid for a fourth consecutive Olympic title. Lewis succeeded with remarkable ease, becoming only the third Olympian to win four consecutive titles in an individual event - the two others being Al Oerter (discus throw 1956-1968) and Paul Elvstrøm (yachting, 1948-1960). Lewis and Oerter are the only two to have won the same event at four consecutive Olympics; Elvstrøm won in two different events. If Lewis would have qualified for the 4 x 100 m team, he could have won his tenth Olympic gold, surpassing his countryman Ray Ewry as the most successful male Olympian.
Carl Lewis recorded a single called "Break It Up" in 1987 with his band: Carl Lewis and the Electric Storm.
Lewis retired after the Atlanta Olympics and is now an actor.