Directed by British filmmaker Daniel Gordon, 9.79* explores the controversy that ensued after Ben Johnson’s positive test for anabolic steroids at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where the Canadian won the 100-meter final.
The documentary premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Saturday, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, where Johnson appeared after the airing.
Gordon was able to recruit and interview all eight participants from the infamous race, and Johnson’s rivals, namely Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Canadian Desai Williams, feature prominently in the film.
Their own stories with performance enhancing drugs narrate a period where naïveté trumped reason.
Lewis tried to portray Johnson as a scapegoat and a poster boy for performance-enhancing drugs throughout the film.
“I haven’t seen Carl since 1988 … maybe in the future we’ll do something together,” Johnson said to the enthused audience.
The former American superstar became a lightning rod for controversy when he questioned Jamaican drug-testing standards this summer.
In a 2003 Sports Illustrated report, Lewis was reported to have tested positive for three banned stimulants in 1988, but was exonerated by the U.S. Olympic Committee as he explained that the substances were taken inadvertently.
Throughout the film, Gordon paints Johnson as a sympathetic character.
A simple émigré from Jamaica, it is heavily implied throughout the film that coach Charlie Francis, noted Lewis supporter Andre Jackson and his own doctor, Jamie Astaphan, may have duped Johnson into taking the banned substance stanozolol.
Although Jackson wasn’t interviewed for the film, he was asked whether he injected stanozolol into Johnson after the seminal race in Seoul.
His response: “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.”
At the heart of the documentary lies the question: why wasn’t there stronger enforcement on performance-enhancing drugs?
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established in November, 1999, spearheaded by Canadian Dick Pound, a bureau that, the film suggests, almost certainly would have alleviated the circumstances for rampant drug use had it existed a decade prior.
Don Catlin, an anti-doping scientist who founded the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory was interviewed along with Pound for the film.
Catlin and Pound articulate their thought process at the time — namely, a skepticism that elite athletes would have a desire to take performance-enhancing drugs, out of a certain ethos and pride.
Gordon tries to tack another fundamental theme in the film: at what point does one’s ethical standards erode, when faced with the grand prospect of becoming world champion?
Robson da Silva, a Brazilian runner who was one of the three competitors from the race that did not test positive at some time for substances, said the decision to stay clean was well worth it.
And while da Silva has faded into relative obscurity when compared to Christie, who tested positive for nandrolone in 1999, Lewis and Johnson, he clearly seems the most content and at peace with himself out of all eight competitors.
Gordon’s film is a revelation, an opening of the proverbial curtains that cast a cloudy figure over the sport of track and field. With neat editing tricks, and compelling interviews, 9.79* is a film any sports fan should see.
The film plays its third and final show at TIFF on Sat. Sept. 15 at the Cineplex Odeon on Yonge and Dundas at 6:45 p.m. It will be shown again as part of the second installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series.