Saturday, October 20, 2012

9.79* [film review]

9.79*, the second entry in the second volume of ESPN Films' acclaimed 30 For 30 sports documentary series, examines the scandal-plagued 1988 Seoul Olympics men's 100 metre final event and the culture of sports doping. For the first time anywhere, director Daniel Gordon assembles all of that race's eight runners to discuss the event and its legacy, producing a briskly paced 80 minute film that is consistently fascinating.

Ben Johnson, the Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter who became the central focus of the scandal after testing positive for anabolic steroids and having his gold medal stripped, emerges from 9.79* as a figure who evokes somewhat mixed reactions. After initially lying about his drug use, the soft-spoken Johnson nowadays seems genuinely contrite about his mistakes, while also deflecting blame by stating that he was pushed to cheat in order to compete on an unfair playing field and also demonstrating a distinct bitterness at being made the fall guy for athletes who break the rules to get ahead. Hearing Johnson and others recall just how brutally he was pilloried after the positive test and now knowing that five of the rest of his seven competitors in the race were subsequently linked to drugs generated more sympathy from me towards the man than I would have anticipated. Toronto Star journalist Mary Ormsby provides a welcome local perspective on Johnson's saga, detailing the rock star status he had risen to in Canada prior to the '88 Games (including a Toronto parade in his honour, decorations from the Canadian government, and the athlete being "followed by armies of women") and contributing to that recounting of the dramatic fallout after the scandal broke.

Gordon is exhaustively thorough in revisiting the race, which he frames with additionally meticulous details of its lead-up and aftermath. Along with Johnson, interviewed are competitors Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Calvin Smith, Robson Da Silva, Desai Williams, Ray Stewart, and Carl Lewis (only Da Silva and Smith have never been linked to drugs). Not surprisingly, the colourful Lewis, who was eventually awarded the gold medal, is the most interesting of the lot. Few athletes in my memory are as easy to dislike as the smug Lewis, with his egotistical personality (including references to himself in the third person) and a hypocritical stance on cheaters. Lewis never officially got caught, but most of his competitors and a lot of track insiders believe he cheated. In fact, it was revealed in 2003 that he tested positive several times for a banned substance in 1988 and had his test results thrown out by the U.S. Olympic Committee, who suspiciously dismissed them as "inadvertent positives". Gordon clearly has his suspicions as well, as is evidenced during a moment in the film where a sports doping historian's statements about users of human growth hormone experiencing dental problems and possibly needing braces is immediately followed by footage of Lewis wearing braces. Lewis' unlikability factor is also elevated with some hilarious scenes showing his awful singing career, plus an anecdote recalling him quickly going over to Johnson to shake the then-winner's hand following the race. Lewis paints it as a demonstration of good sportsmanship, but it plays more like a disingenuous act meant to horn in on Johnson's temporary spotlight. A variety of interviews with other athletes, track coaches, and Olympic insiders adds additional insight into the event and sports doping in general. Some of the most enlightening dialogue comes from Angella Issajenko, the Canadian sprinter who also admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, and Dr. Don Catlin, who was the director of the UCLA Olympic testing lab and a prominent figure in testing for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Catlin discusses his amazement at the number of positive tests he started seeing prior to those Games, a disenchantment with what he perceived as his indirect "aiding and abetting" of the dishonest athletes' drug schedules, and how the U.S. Olympic Committee mysteriously lost a large number of tests that he assumes were incriminating. 

One of the more interesting parts of the film is the conspiracy theory talk of Johnson's post-race beer being spiked prior to his drug test, which he's always maintained. The alleged culprit is Andre Jackson, a friend of Lewis. Johnson claims that Jackson later told him to his face that he spiked the runner's drink on that and "many other occasions". Even Lewis associate Joe Douglas admits to finagling a way to get Jackson access into the post-race testing room, but that it was to ensure Johnson didn't use a masking agent to cover up any drug use. Things get even more bizarre when Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for 9.79*, responds to Gordon about the allegations with a statement saying "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't".

For Canadians, the Ben Johnson scandal is an embarrassing chapter in our sports history, but that less-than-10-second race provides rich fodder for a story that remains timely, considering the sports doping problems that continue to reverberate in recent headlines involving Lance Armstrong and players from the National Football League and Major League Baseball.   

Rating: B+

Premiered October 9th on ESPN in the United States; currently airing on ESPN and TSN in Canada

Related post: my October 2009 review of Kings Ransom, the first film in the 30 For 30 series