' ' Cinema Romantico: 9.79*

Thursday, October 11, 2012


“I don’t remember that race at all.” This is what Carl Lewis, nine time Olympic gold medalist in Track & Field, says of the notorious 100 meter showdown he lost to infamous Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson when asked about it on camera in Daniel Gordon’s documentary "9.79*." Except less than 60 seconds later he recounts approaching Johnson immediately after the race to shake the victor’s hand and Johnson rebuffing him. Of this Lewis says: “I’ll never forget it.”

Wait, wait, wait, you just told me you don’t remember the race at all. Now you’re telling you’ll never forget it? Which is it, Carl? Huh? Which is it?! This, I suspect, is a keen insight into the mentality of the sprinter in the P.E.D. (Performance Enhancing Drug) Era. Recall only what you need to recall. Choose your words cautiously and say only as much as you need to say. Deny the rest.

The 100 meter race at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea has since that day colloquially come to be known as The Dirtiest Race In History. Six of the eight finalists, all of whom are interviewed on camera, a fine achievement by Gordon to re-gather them, would, at one time or another, be linked to banned substances. The only one caught in the aftermath of that actual contest, however, was the victor, Johnson, who blazed to the finish line in world record and then unheard of time of 9.79. Lewis finished second. Great Britain’s Linford Christie finished third. The United States’ Calvin Smith – one of the two men never to be linked to drugs – finished fourth and would earn a belated bronze medal when Johnson was disqualified.

As Gordon’s doc demonstrates, the Canadian track program was fast and outta control. The late Charlie Francis was the “coach”, sure, but the late Dr. Jamie Astasphan was the real man in charge, distributing steroids to runners to bulk them up and maximize their speed. And, in fact, the second Canadian in the race, Desai Williams, also confessed to taking them in the aftermath of Johnson’s bust. Ah, but don’t presume “9.79*” is jingoistic and anti-Maple Leaf. Far from it. Don Catlin, director at an L.A. drug lab, reveals that in the run-up to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles he and others were ordered to administer comprehensive drug tests to American athletes in what was deemed an "educational program." Anyone who tested positive faced no consequences. As Catlin states, the program existed solely "to allow the athletes to figure out when they could take their drugs and how long it would take to clear the drugs from their bodies." Catlin also states actual positive results for banned substances AT the Olympics were, sans explanation, lost. LOST!!! How? No one knows, but I bet you have a theory. Remember, kids, it’s only illegal if you get caught.

The Canadian sprinters on camera in “9.79*” fessed up long ago and, thus, on camera here are honest and remorseful. Well, Johnson is honest. It’s difficult to speculate on his level of remorse. He took drugs, yeah, and then lied and said he didn’t immediately after being disqualified but that was only because his “lawyer” advised him to deny it. He and the others took drugs because, like, you know, everyone was doing it, man, pitifully trying to recast the Olympic Stadium as a 1st Grade Playground. At another point Johnson laments "The people coming to meets, they want to be entertained, they want to see fast times. They don't care how you get there.”

Of course. When caught, blame the public. And perhaps the public – which is generally left out of the doc – is partially to blame. Many sportswriters, such as the endlessly irritated Charles Pierce, would argue it is self-righteousness on our part. We yearn to see fast times, are thrilled when we see them, however they are achieved, and only become infuriated at the fraudulent achievement afterwards. Then again, as Gordon’s film shows, Johnson filled his bank account with endorsement money on account of his success, his success which was earned by gaming the system. Is that different than a Wall Street fat cat gaming the system to fill his/her bank account?

Gordon does not pretend to have answers to this ethical quandry. In fact, he and his narrator do not even address this ethical quandry themselves. Rather they let the athletes speak and attempt to work it out on their own and that is where “9.79*” settles into a gray area. After all, what is modern day Track & Field but one oval-shaped gray area? The aforementioned Linford Christie, eventual Silver Medalist in ’88 and 100 meter Gold Medalist in ’92, tested positive in Seoul for traces of pseudoephedrine but was cleared only to test positive in 1999 for the banned substance nandrolone at which time he was suspended for two years from competition. In “9.79*” Christie states it was “something I did not do.” He states, for the record, that whatever people think of the suspension, he doesn’t “give a s***.” He states the film’s most telling line: “Enemies don’t believe you. Friends don’t need an explanation.” 

It’s always someone else with these sprinters. When the doors are closed and the shades are drawn, when enemies are busy and friends have plans, when they’re not trying to spin the story to suit their needs, you have to wonder what Linford and the rest REALLY think.


Shane Slater said...

This was a very good doc. So fascinating.

Nick Prigge said...

Wasn't it, though? And it gets better in my mind the further away from it I get.

It's so complex and I love how they just laid all the information out there and didn't force the complexity down our throats. It just reveals itself on its own.