9.79* debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern, as part of the 30 For 30 series
The headache of performance-enhancing drugs, beyond the plain fact of athletes cheating (and abusing their bodies) to win, is that it creates an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, and hypocrisy over who cheated, who didn’t cheat, and who did cheat but was clever and lucky enough never to get caught. The asterisk in Daniel Gordon’s 9.79*, a thorough accounting of the scandal-ridden 100m dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is something that has been attached to discussions of everything from the Olympic Games to Major League Baseball to the Tour De France. It has been applied officially to the stupendous achievements of athletes who have been caught (Barry Bonds’ single-season and career home run marks, Lance Armstrong’s now-vacated Tour De France victories), but we apply it ourselves in barroom arguments where we compare dopers to non-dopers or raise questions over the men or women who didn’t get caught but look to us like Popeye after he eats his spinach. In other words, the playing field isn’t level—though it would be if everyone was a user—and now we’re left to do the leveling. It’s a messy business.
To my mind, the key revelation in 9.79* comes from a drug tester who realized, in the run-up to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, that the anti-drug “education” being offered to American athletes was not an education in how to stay away from them, but how to get away with using them, which basically meant knowing when to stop doping in advance of Olympic tests. For athletes then and now, there exists the assumption that their competitors are using, so the choice for them, bluntly stated by steroid doctor Jamie Astaphan in the quote that opens the film, is “If you don’t take it, you don’t make it.” Confirmed dopers are pilloried for it, but when they’re not in denial about it, they’re calling foul—and, in the case of Ben Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis, the doper has a point.
Six of the eight sprinters who raced in the 100m finals in Seoul—the exceptions are Robson Caetano from Brazil and American Calvin Smith, who wound up taking the bronze after Johnson’s metal was stripped—have some link to doping, but it’s really Johnson who’s most remembered for cheating, and the hypocrisy of it still burns him. Gordon finds Johnson living modestly and clinging to the past, holding on to a life raft of metals, trophies, and fan letters and bitterly recounting the events in Seoul, their lead-up and aftermath. Overall, the film is a redemptive prospect for Johnson, but not an entirely flattering portrait: There are still some denials and accusations of sabotage, and the mere fact that a decorated Olympian like Lewis is also covered in mud doesn’t make Johnson all that much less muddy.
Still, it’s remarkable that Lewis even agreed to participate in a documentary that’s this damaging to his reputation. He comes off here as a slickster and an opportunist, someone who claims that Johnson wouldn’t have stood a chance against him without PEDs, but has his own doping history trailing him. (Best moment in the movie: After we’ve been told that users of Human Growth Hormone often face dental problems, we get a vintage clip of Lewis flashing the telltale braces.) If nothing else, 9.79* succeeds in both stripping the luster off of Lewis’ Olympic run, which has routinely put him in the “best-ever” conversation, and deflecting some of the shame piled on Johnson, who is not so alone anymore. Let the barroom arguments commence once more!
Gordon has done well to gather the participants in the race, and a selection of coaches, drug testers, and other athletes who bring their perspective to the issue. He also gets into the mechanics of the 100m itself, drawing a sharp contrast between Johnson’s hot-off-the-blocks starting speed and Lewis’ steady acceleration at the finish. (The drugs kept Johnson from fading down the stretch.) Most of all, 9.79* brings an even tone and a dispassionate perspective to a time when Johnson—and the country of Canada, by extension—was vilified beyond reason. When six of the eight runners have doping issues, that’s not an individual problem—that’s a problem with the entire culture of the sport.
- A “for further reading” link for you: I wrote a review of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ great Barry Bonds book Game Of Shadows, which details especially well the ability of PED manufacturers and athletes to stay a couple of steps ahead of drug testers. If the PED scandals have calmed down, I suspect it’s because detection is even harder now that it’s been in the past. (Witness Lance Armstrong.)
- “For further viewing”: Gordon has directed a few documentaries about North Korea, including two about sports: 2002’s The Game Of Their Lives, about the North Korean’s soccer team’s upset of the Italians in the 1966 World Cup, and 2004’s A State Of Mind, about preteen gymnasts preparing for a synchronized spectacle called the “Mass Games.” I reviewed Crossing The Line, a fascinating profile of an American soldier who defected to North Korea during the war and spent the remainder of his life as a willing propoganda tool.
- 9.79* isn’t the most dazzling piece of filmmaking, but I’ll confess to feeling a wave of relief at it not being as spastically energized as Broke. It was also a nice segue to move from that documentary to Ben Johnson, another athlete who lost his fortune.