Home > Film, Reviews, Sports, Television > Sports Documentary Review: 30 for 30 #1 – 9.79*

Sports Documentary Review: 30 for 30 #1 – 9.79*

A new RandomDanglingMystery project will involve viewing and reviewing as many of ESPN’s 30 For 30 sports documentary films as is humanly possible and/or critically necessary. Check in for future reviews of these films.

9.79* (Directed by Daniel Gordon)

Like most unpleasant pieces of our history, Canadians have generally willed themselves to forget about Ben Johnson. The Jamaican-born 100-metre sprinter, who won the 1987 World Championship and 1988 Olympic Gold Medal in world-record form over heavily-hyped American rival Carl Lewis only to be stripped of both titles and records when he was caught doping after the ’88 race, is perhaps now less vital to the national memory. The gold-medal-and-world-record triumph of another Jamaican-born sprinter running for Canada (Donovan Bailey) over another cocky American (Maurice Greene, who did not even medal in the event) on American soil during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (a tacky, over-commercialized, poorly-organized spectacle that left bad taste in the mouths of most dedicated Games-watchers) was a tailor-made slice of sporting-world redemption for the nation’s athletic imagination. If Johnson’s glory self-immolated before we could even begin to savour it, then Bailey’s victory was the more durable phoenix that rose from its toxic ashes.

How Johnson was actually caught: someone shouted “Are you on drugs?” as they crossed the finish line, and the silly guy was the only one to raise his hand, as you can see. Dummy.

With an American audience on ESPN at least partially being considered by director Daniel Gordon, 9.79* does not dig too deeply into the Canadian reaction to and the enduring legacy of Johnson’s win and subsequent disqualification. A prudent move, considering the junior-partner assumptions of anti-American sentiment that animate attitudes to the event north of the 49th down to this day. But the film does show how Canada first rejoiced in the victory and then pitilessly exposed every unflattering aspect of the cheat job with trademarked self-negating bureaucratic efficiency. Americans, so stereotypically quick to outrage, may not be able to grasp this reaction. When something goes wrong, Canadians don’t form mobs, they form government commissions.

Gordon’s interest in the course of events as revealed by his documentary reflects this procedural completeness. Much of 9.79* is concerned with how the doping happened, how it was detected, and how much more widespread it was among the 100m finalists in Seoul in ’88 than Johnson’s banning and villification made it seem. Appearances by various veterans of the era’s doping labs confirm that much was undetectable, and sometimes what was detected was not made public or did not lead to sanctions. Although nothing firm is ever pinned on anyone but Johnson from the time itself and none of the information coalesces into a pointed finger (the threat of libel suits seem to hang over every word one American tester in particular dares to utter), an image of a milieu of rampant unseen use of performance-enhancing drugs is definitely constructed.

Gordon also interviews every one of the race participants, and masterfully allows each and every one to tell their own story while allowing the film to tell the factual one, too. The facts are that the only race participants who never failed a drug test or admitted to drug use in their careers were eventual bronze medalist Calvin Smith of the U.S. (who seems a bit stung by the result still) and marginal competitor Robson da Silva of Brazil (who is unperturbed and happy just to have been there, but then if you were parasailing in Rio like he is shown doing, you’d be fairly laid back about things too).

This includes default golden boy Carl Lewis, who actually failed a test before the Games, but was allowed to participate by the United States Olympic Committee, who shared the persistent dollar signs in his eyes, no doubt. As it was for the race itself, Lewis and Johnson are the main event of 9.79*, and share the spotlight as uneasily as they did in their athletic primes. The more retired and internally-focused Johnson is inconsistent in tone, showing the camera his basement-banished boxes of medals and laurels in snowy suburban Toronto with a mix of defiant pride and mournful regret. He will as soon justify his doping as he will denounce it, and he does both and does not seem to register the contradiction; everyone else did it, so I had to do it, too, to summarize his every thought on the subject. He’ll also float conspiracy theories of sabotage gladly, namely the allegation that a comrade of Lewis’ from his California track club was mysteriously in the test room when Johnson gave his sample and may have tampered with it. Johnson speaks with the lack of caution of someone with nothing to lose, which he is.

As inconsistent and baldly unreliable as Johnson is, though, Lewis and his protectors are wholly unsympathetic to the point of insufferability. Gordon doesn’t quite play fair, showing clips of Lewis’ brief and unspeakably awful career as a recording artist to render him a ridiculous, self-promoting, wealth-and-famed-obsessed Ugly American figure before the contentious stuff even comes up. But Lewis presents himself in a way that suggests he pretty much is all of those things, and thinks that’s not only fantastic but also his god-given right, just as winning was.

That public opinion has generally gathered around the idea that Lewis was doping as well in the late ’80s (and Johnson was just the convenient sacrificial lamb to keep the croookedness of the sport quiet for a bit longer) has made his grandiose self-defences all the more overblown. His concern for the validity of his legacy in the wake of the BALCO doping scandal that felled U.S. track hero Marion Jones and many others on the national team has sparked not only furious defences but also the sort of groundless allegations that he scoffs at when they come from Johnson, namely his insinuations about lax Jamaican doping controls in the wake of current World’s Fastest Man Usain Bolt’s 2012 Olympic 100m/200m repeats.

What 9.79* achieves more than anything is the full contextualizing of that asterisk after the title. At least until the 30 For 30 series gets around to facing up to the cascade of asterisks that doping in professional baseball has unleashed (and it is yet to scratch that particular itch, despite the next film to be shown being the 50th in the sequence), or until Lance Armstrong’s drug-enhanced cycling achievements are far enough in the cultural rear-view mirror to permit the documentary treatment, this film will have to suffice as the standard-bearer of the ongoing and ever-expanding investigation into doping in big-time sports.

The question that such discussions always raise but never really answer, especially in endemically drug-laced sports like sprinting, cycling, or baseball, is whether accepting that performance-enhancing drugs are going to be used and regulating their application might be a solution. Maybe it isn’t (unless you make absolutely everything legal, the range of potential stimulants and modifiers would only share chemistry’s ever-diminishing limits), but 9.79* makes a wide-ranging if never entirely focused case that much cheating went on unnoticed or unpunished 25 years ago, and the same is likely to be true now. So what if the rules changed so that this cheating wasn’t cheating any longer? That’s a playing field that we perhaps do not wish to envision, and nor does this documentary.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports, Television

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