Sunday, October 14, 2012

30 in 30 - Day 13: 9.79* (Calling An Audible)

Well, I'm calling the first audible in my month of movies.  I was supposed to watch Deep Water tonight and knew it existed on a couple of sites online.  Unfortunately when I went to them, the person who had uploaded the film had chosen to remove them (or was asked to...I'm not sure).

There was a copy available at the library, but it was across the city (and I didn't feel like making an hour-long road trip just to get a copy).  Especially when I had a very suitable replacement right on my PVR.

Thursday was the premiere showing of 9.79* on TSN (Canada's ESPN).  It's a doc that revolves around the 1988 Olympic 100m final - Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis.  The build-up (literally) and the aftermath of one of the most sensational moments in sports history.  The hype, the popularity and of course the doping scandal that resulted.

It was an easy decision to make.

Tonight's film - 9.79*

9.79* (2012)
90 mins.
Rated: NR (other than the discussion of drug use, this is suitable for anyone)

"The 100-meter final at the Seoul Games was riddles in scandal.  This one race still haunts the eight men who took part."  (source: 30 for 30 site)

As mentioned, I watched this on my PVR.  It's sure to get some re-runs over the next few months.

The film opens with clips from all eight runners who competed in the 100m finals at the Seoul Olympics.  That right off the bat had me intrigued.  I did not expect that.  Each gave their (I'll call it) opening statement.  It was quick to see the position and attitude of each individual.  This race, this topic still remains a very polarizing case.

Ben Johnson, the center of it all, is shown in current day down in his basement throwing boxes filled with letters of support he has kept all these years.  Awards and trophies sit on shelves and are strewn all over the place.  He is still cocky and confident.

He talks about growing up and his start in running.  His introduction to coach Charlie Francis (who ran in the 1972 Olympics).  We also hear from Angela Issajenko who was a Canadian champion running under Francis' wing as well.  Ben talks about his relationship with Francis, very father-and-son like.  Johnson would listen to everything Charlie had to say.

We are then introduced to Carl Lewis.  He was the poster boy for sprinting in the early 80's.  We also meet Joe Douglas, Manager of the Santa Monica Track Club - and quite the character.  He's even more cocky than Johnson.  Some wonderful archive footage of Carl Lewis' music video is shown.  Yikes!

The first meeting between Johnson and Lewis came at the 1980 Pan Am Games.  Johnson looks incredibly thin.  Lewis didn't even have Johnson on his radar at the time.  Ben had a fast start, but Carl had a fast finish.

The doc shifts to talk about performance enhancing drugs, specifically the East German women runners.  Charlie Francis (through an archive interview) talks about the justification of it all.  If one person does it, we should all do it.  So why shouldn't I do it too.  Some athletes flat out say no.  It's an ethics/honor issue.  Guys like Linford Christie and Dennis Mitchell say no.

I immediately begin to question what I am watching.  Who do I believe?  Even today.  It seems like it's impossible to just get the salt flat truth.  Calvin Smith, the world record holder in 1983 says he's clean, he's always been clean.  He's the only one I believed.

In 1983, the United States began vigorously testing for drug use.  The reasoning?  They didn't want an embarrassment come the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  They wanted to know where their athletes stood at the time.  What it ended up being was a blueprint for a runner on how to beat the system.

The 84 Olympics were Carl Lewis' peak.  Winning 4 gold medals, he was the poster boy.  Ben Johnson (still pretty skinny) finished with the bronze - a bronze that sits in a cardboard box, tossed in with all his other medals.  There were apparently a lot of positive results from the LA Olympics...results that were lost.  Again, who do I believe?

Ben Johnson knew that he could beat Carl.  His start was tremendous, he just ran out of gas.  He needed more strength.  Charlie Francis introduced him to Jamie Astaphan, the man who would supply Johnson with his PED's.  The drugs he took would clear all tests if the runner stopped taking them 28 days before testing.  So to beat the system, you just had to have a calendar.

Johnson quickly benefited, winning the World Championships in 1985 and 86.  The Canadian public started to take notice.  At the 1987 World Championships, Ben ran to a new world record time of 9.84.  Having a tremendous start (it really was impressive), Carl Lewis claims that it was a false start.  Here's a guy that just tells the story the way he sees it.  I had a hard time with pretty much everything he had to say.  Excuses, excuses.

Lewis went on to publicly bring up the drug topic and how lots of athletes were taking drugs.  Johnson and his camp - deny, deny, deny.

An injury months before the Olympics had Johnson and Francis part ways.  Ben decided to go see Astaphan for treatment.  Which according to Ben was just pills and injections.  No questions asked.

Meanwhile, Carl Lewis tested positive at the US Olympic Trials.  His reasoning... it was an "inadvertent positive".  He didn't know what he was taking.  The result - no punishment.

Lewis wins a warmup race against Johnson.  Johnson says to wait until Seoul.  That's when everything will be on the line.

The 1988 Seoul Olympic 100m was THE RACE.  Everybody was anticipating something special happening.  Each runner participating in the finals set up that race.  It was cool to hear each person's perspective on the event.

The was all about Ben.  He blew everybody away.  9.79 seconds.  The look on Carl Lewis' face was priceless.  Of course Carl has a whole story to perfectly explain everything.  In Canada, it was a galvanizing moment.  Pandemonium with the crowning of the fastest man on the planet.  Even to this day, Ben is pretty cocky about the moment.

But that moment would be just a blip compared to the next 24 hours.  Ben tested positive.  Chaos.  The media was racing to find Ben.  He was racing to get him (and his mother) out of Seoul.  Johnson initially denied taking drugs (something his lawyers told him to do...something he regrets).  He was stripped of the gold and in an instance became the poster boy for drug use in sports.

The Dubin Inquiry was set up to get to the bottom of what happened.  Initially there was still a lot of denying, but it was Angela Issajenko who came forth and told the truth.  She says she did it to protect Charlie Francis.  In addition to journals and journals of documentation from Angela, Jamie Astaphan had phone taps of him and Ben Johnson talking about PED's.  Ben finally came forth and admitted the truth.

Of course there had to be more to the story.  The story is that Andre Jackson, a man who was seen with Carl Lewis and was apparently a US supporter, spiked one of Ben Johnson's drinks to ensure he would receive a positive test.  He was in the testing room at the time.  Nobody could explain how he was able to gain access into the room (man I hate that kind of stuff....people know - they just won't say on camera).  Jackson wouldn't appear on camera for the doc, but was his quotes made it seem really one-sided.

Ben then says he met up with Andre years later and Jackson admitted it.  Again - what's the truth and who do I believe?  It's kind of frustrating.

Of course we then learn that Linford Christie would be banned for a couple years, so would Dennis Mitchell.  Others would be caught taking or distributing drugs.  Really, the only person who I felt was clean and clean all along was Calvin Smith.  He ended up receiving the bronze medal from the 88 Olympics after the shifting of places.  He wears it proudly.

(I've really got to condense my overviews)

I sat back after watching this doc and just shook my head.  I didn't know who to believe, who was telling the truth, who was sorry for their actions.  Carl Lewis' cockiness and "his version" of the events actually made me feel for Ben (just for a moment though).  Such a high-profile sport and it was just abused at that time.

It made me think about today's champ Usain Bolt.  He's running at a pace that is ridiculous compared to the times in 1988.  What do I make of him?  Is he doping?  Will there ever be a time when we will be able to watch a 100m final at the Olympics and see a true athletic competition?  Sans drugs.

I enjoyed the doc.  There was a lot of great archival footage, a fair amount of re-enactments (which were done ok) and as mentioned interviews from all 8 runners.

Charlie Francis and Jamie Astaphan were both not interviewed for the doc.  I was wondering why until it was revealed that they both passed away years back.

A good watch - especially for those of us who remember the event.  Talking to a couple of people who were in diapers back in 1988, they were not as engaged in the film.  I can understand that.

It was a bit of a frustrating view, but worth the watch.

3 out of 5

No reviews for this doc's new.

Next up - The Last Gladiators


  1. I watched this last week because I was eight when it happened and didn't know the specifics. I knew at the time that Johnson smashed the world record got caught doping and became an international symbol for cheating - long before Balco and the PED scandals in baseball and cycling.

    I agree with you that Calvin Smith seems to be the only innocent figure in all this. Would have bet on Linford Christie as well, but it just goes to show you how dirty the sport was. As an American, I went into this believing in Carl Lewis more than you might have. I knew Ben Johnson was a cheater, he came out of nowhere and obviously gained a lot of muscle in a short amount of time. But Carl Lewis was always an elite track star, always stayed roughly the same size and while "King Carl" did have an ego to match his talent I never heard any evidence that he cheated. But after watching this documentary it does seem like there was a cover up to protect one positive test, while sweeping another one under the rug.

    What I've learned is that in almost any sport, especially in the 1980's, cheating was too widespread for anyone - US, Canada, or any other country - to say "my guy was clean". I just saw a comment on Eric Gagne's new book that a TSN viewer blames American ballplayers for forcing a culture of cheating on "innocent" Canadians. That's a bunch of bull.

    Everyone cheated.

    1. It's true. Cheating has been and will always be a part of sport.

      Does the fact that someone fesses up to it after all this time make it better... No. But I can appreciate somebody who just wants to set the record straight.

      What I found interesting was the whole "braces" theory. Even more interesting was that Lewis was sporting braces in a few of his interviews (after Johnson had overtaken him as the faster runner and before Seoul). Coincidence? Maybe.

      I was 15 at the time and remember the hugeness of the race. The resulting inquiry was equally huge.

      Nice to see somebody take that story and present it in doc form.

  2. It was interesting, but most of us in Canada (35+) lived this and the aftermath, so there wasn't a lot we hadn't heard.

    I would have liked to have heard more from the other runners, but I suppose they just weren't as interesting. And when it comes down to it, it was Ben vs. Carl really.

    The most interesting/frustrating part for me was the doctor who still had all the samples from 1984 and was re-testing them to see what today's technology/systems would find. Then it is insinuated that he is finding things and decides to stop, because at this point it doesn't really matter. Then why re-test in the first place?? Odd.

    Anyway, thank God guys like Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin came along for Canada in the 90s to help ease the Ben Johnson pain.


    1. Yeah, that part bugged me too. It was like "I have stuff to say, but won't...but you know where I'm going with this".

      Just give me the truth guys. Stopp tap dancing around things.

      True that about Donovan. He helped a lot.