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(Odie Note: At the Toronto Film Festival, I saw six documentaries: Bad 25, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Mea Maxima Culpa, Love, Marilyn, Room 237, and 9.79*. Over the next few posts, I'll cover all of them. I'm starting with 9.79*, which premieres on ESPN October 9, 2012.)
ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is a fantastic array of sports based documentaries by well-known documentarians. The network’s film division is behind 9.79*, Daniel Gordon’s investigation of Ben Johnson’s controversial Olympic gold-medal winning 100-meter race. In 1988, Canadian athlete Johnson ran a record breaking time of 9.79 against his chief rival, American runner Carl Lewis. Barely recovered from a pulled hamstring, Johnson became a symbol of sports toughness and perseverance. A few days later, he became a far more common symbol of sports: He was busted for steroids and had his medal taken away from him. Lewis’ silver medal was replaced by Johnson’s rescinded gold. The asterisk in the film’s title is sports shorthand for an exception. “Not exactly…” those sports asterisks seem to say.
Lewis and Johnson’s rivalry was something like track’s version of Ali-Frazier, with Lewis the more colorful and loquacious of the two. While Lewis was interacting with the public and recording extremely bad R&B singles, Johnson was out of the spotlight practicing in lieu of their 1988 matchup. Johnson’s besting of the braggadocious Lewis made him an instant hero in Canada, at least until his doping made the maple leaf fall off the flag. Interviews with Canadian sportswriters and footage from the race (which we see several times in its entirety) provide a larger context for the uninitiated. Additionally, 9.79* raises questions about just how the steroids Johnson was busted for got into his body. It adds some uncertainty to the proceedings, but it doesn’t absolve Johnson’s later steroid use. The trajectory of Johnson's career would be more tragic if 9.79* didn't inform us that he knowingly repeated his mistakes over and over.
Gordon speaks with all 8 runners in the race—in addition to Lewis and Johnson, the participants are Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Robson da Silva, Calvin Smith, Ray Stewart and Desai Williams—and their recollections contribute to yet another fine doc by ESPN. Johnson in particular speaks candidly about his steroid use, and how it eventually got him banned from the sport altogether. Gordon also interviews other runners who faced the similar fate of a lifetime ban from the sport. It's impossible to feel sorry for them, and 9.79* doesn't shy away from their deservingly harsh criticism.
Despite the passage of nearly a decade and a half of time, Lewis still seems a little stung by the events. His comments have a tinge of anger, but he should be angrier at Gordon for digging up that clip of his music video from the 80’s. It's almost as bad as NFL legend Deion Sanders' infamous remake of Secret Weapon's Must Be The Music.
I admit that track fans may enjoy this documentary more than the average viewer, but anyone who questions why an athlete thinks he or she will get away with cheating should watch 9.79*.