I’m a huge follower of track and field (as evident by my blog RunLoft). The very first summer Olympics I remember was the summer of 1988. Besides being old enough to know what was going on for the first time (7), my little sister was adopted from Seoul, South Korea just 8 weeks earlier. Our family took a particular interest in the opening ceremonies and just about everything that surrounded Seoul because we were so starved to see what Sara’s home country looked like. It was the first (of many) Olympics that would become required viewing in the Hanson household.
We enjoyed watching FloJo, Janet Evans, and Matt Biondi. I recall watching Roy Jones, Jr demolish somebody from South Korea only to be robbed of his gold. But one specific event stands out to me even to this day – the men’s 100 meter dash. It was a showdown between Carl Lewis – the flamboyant and cocky pride of America against the stoic (and beaked out of his brains) Ben Johnson of Canada. Anyone who has see the race knows Ben Johnson came out of the blocks like a freight train and sprinted ahead of the field for gold. Over the next few days, it came out that Ben Johnson was, in fact, doped to the gills and the gold was awarded to Carl Lewis.
The movie is a look at the final. All 8 finalist are interviewed along with prominent officials and coaches. Although the film certainly vilifies Johnson, his coach Charlie Francis, and his doctor Jamie Astaphan, there also is the cloud of drug use suspected from other competitors, as well. Basically, the doc shows the first days of the current day we live in where just about every professional athlete is suspicious. Drug testing officials and coaches tell stories of mass drug test failures, diluted urine samples, and masking agents.
I saw a majority of the film 9.79* on BBC (1 hr version opposed to 90 minutes for the 30 for 30 version) a week before the London Olympics this year. I was impressed with the look and quality of the doc and especially the fact they got so many people, including all 8 competitors, to be so candid about the race that changed sports culture the way we know it.
Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson, the two central figures in the race, don’t disappoint in the film. After watching the various versions of the film twice, I don’t know whether I really like Carl Lewis or not. There certainly is a likable quality about him and he’s more of an open book that I thought he would be. The brutally honest commentary from Lewis – for example when the still-brash Lewis says “[before he started doing drugs]…Johnson just wasn’t that talented” – was really enjoyable. At the same time, the documentary (perhaps unfairly?) paints him as a possible drug cheat who didn’t get caught (even when he did get “caught.”) Johnson, on the other hand, is certainly a cheat. There are a few confusing scenes where he admits to all his use and then follows it up by blaming a friend of Carl Lewis for spiking a drink. Johnson, somewhat surprisingly to me, comes across as somewhat likable despite his flaws.
9.79* probably isn’t the greatest of the 30 for 30 films, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon. Director Daniel Gordon has done a fabulous job making the definitive documentary about one of the single biggest sporting events of an entire decade.
out of 10