Each generation seems to experience its own sporting scandal. My generation is no different, and for this Olympic fanatic, the one which still haunts me is Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympics. In fact, after watching “9.79*,” ESPN’s latest film in its “30 for 30” series, I think my heart is even heavier. I walked away from this film with new questions, unexpected sympathy, and anger over multiple injustices. BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Daniel Gordon has done his job and done it well.
Gordon could have taken a safe and predictable approach to this documentary. He could have addressed the men’s 100-meter race and how Johnson has fared since being stripped of his Olympic gold medal soon after winning. Instead, his angle as the storyteller is more encompassing and, simply put, brilliant.
It’s as if Gordon has taken the real-life story and adapted it into a masterfully crafted script, intricately weaving in additional key characters, whose own stories, whose own voices, have previously been overlooked. And he does this because, contrary to many people’s understanding, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis aren’t the only characters of this tragic tale. There are six other competitors who ran that day: Robson da Silva, Dennis Mitchell, Desai Williams, Ray Stewart, Linford Christie, and Calvin Smith. There are also the coaches, such as Charlie Francis and Joe Douglas, who had strong influence over their athletes; former USOC coaches and officials who make brief but poignant contributions; and a few shadowy characters, including former doctors and family friends.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Gordon about his film. It’s evident that Gordon is an avid sports fan and is intrigued by the human factor in sports. And while he possesses a strong love for sport, in “9.79*” he gives us a completely unbiased account of this pivotal sporting event. This balanced account was not only crucial to Gordon personally, but was necessary in order to gain the trust of all eight runners he interviewed. Now, 24 years after the event, the 1988 Olympic race in the men’s 100 meters remains a painful subject for many. One by one, he worked to secure commitment from these former Olympians, says Gordon, believing that,enough time having passed, it “seemed like the right time” to do a film about these events.
When I asked Gordon why “9.79*” was chosen as the film’s title, he explained that when the film was released in the UK, it was titled “The Race That Changed the World.” When ESPN expressed interest in the film for its “30 for 30” series, the network asked for a new title, and Gordon suggested “9.79*.” “I really like this title, because it’s fair,” he said. When I asked whether the use of an asterisk in the title suggested something more, Gordon explained that while it wasn’t his intention, he agreed that this piece of punctuation does suggest all kinds of uncertainty, and that this title allows viewers to decide their own view of the film’s story. Perhaps viewers like me interpret this asterisk as uncertainty relating to the legitimacy of all track and field events during the 80’s and 90’s. Perhaps it raises the doubt in the certainty of all athletes, all competitions, and all results.
“Doping is a complicated [issue]….It’s so layered,” Gordon went on to say. What a thorny and complex event the doping scandal of 1988 was indeed! As I alluded to earlier, the story of the 1988 race in men’s 100 meters isn’t just about Ben Johnson (who was disqualified for a positive drug-test) and his rival, runner-up Carl Lewis (who was bumped up from a silver medal to gold). There were numerous people affected and involved. Track and field athletes had been doping for years prior to the Seoul Olympics. The story itself offers multiple, dueling themes, pitted against each other much like the runners themselves were in 1988: honesty versus dishonesty; loyalty versus betrayal; self-importance versus humility. While it may not have been the filmmaker’s intent to do so, his comprehensive representation sets up this thematic battle. And although Ben Johnson was caught for using performance-enhancing drugs, good didn’t necessarily triumph over evil. Let me explain…
These eight runners ran one of the most famous races in Olympic history.
Back in 1988, I remember the shock and disgust I felt when I learnt of Ben Johnson’s positive test for steroids, and how I felt vindicated when Carl Lewis was bumped up from silver to gold. Ben Johnson represented the most evil and dishonest aspect of Olympic sports. Now I find myself hating him less and sympathizing with him more. Yes, Ben Johnson took performance-enhancing drugs during his amateur competitive career. Yet according to test results and the testimony of several of Johnson’s contemporaries, so did four of the other competitors from the 1988 race, including Carl Lewis. (And I’m not even going to address the allegations that Johnson was framed in his failure to pass the post-race drug test.)
I grew up revering Carl Lewis, the heir apparent to Jesse Owens. As I’ve grown older, I’ve had my eyes opened to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and the real Carl Lewis, whose enormous ego and motives are sickening. Those who read this blog know what an idealist I am when it comes to the Olympics. Yes, there’s even some naiveté there as well, because I can’t comfortably accept the idea that we should just enjoy the performance and forget trying to maintain the purity of sport. When I asked Gordon about this and about the impact of 1988 on sports, he offered an interesting comment. “I believe that the vast majority of times [in races] were not done clean and have never been done clean….1988 was certainly a wake-up call.” He’s right, but it’s still a bitter pill for me to swallow.
After I watched “9.79*” I didn’t sleep well that evening. Am I more upset about the injustice of Ben Johnson being the patsy, the fall guy? Or is it the child in me who feels betrayed by those she once idolized? After watching, I felt angry, betrayed, and sad. Carl Lewis wasn’t Ben Johnson’s victim. If anything, it was the other way around. Nor were Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Ray Stewart, or Desai Williams. As for Robson da Silva and Calvin Smith, the only two of those eight runners that never tested positive for drugs, they were victims. But so were we, the fans. Especially those of us who are hopelessly idealistic and believe in the purity of sport. When I posed this question to Dan Gordon, he was hesitant to say who — if anyone — was the victim. Here again, he’s determined to remain objective. “‘9.79*’ asks a lot of questions, [but doesn't] provide answers,” he reminded me.
As the interview concluded, Gordon relayed a conversation with a university professor on the issue of doping in sports. “He said, ‘Remember that it’s just entertainment.’ Well, I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”
Neither am I.
Faster, Higher, Stronger.