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‘9.79*’, Part 2

These eight runners ran one of the most famous races in Olympic history.

(Continued from Part 1)

Back in 1988 I remember the shock and disgust I felt when learning of Ben Johnson’s positive test for steroids, and how I felt vindicated when Carl Lewis was bumped up from silver to gold.  Ben Johnson represented the most evil and dishonest aspect of Olympic sports.  Now I find myself hating him less and sympathizing with him more.  Yes, Ben Johnson took performance-enhancing drugs during his amateur competitive career.  Yet according to test results and the testimony of several of Johnson’s contemporaries, so did four of the other competitors from the 1988 race–Including Carl Lewis.  (And I’m not even going to address the allegations that Johnson was framed in his failure to pass post-race drug test.)

I grew up revering Carl Lewis, the heir apparent to Jesse Owens.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve

“9.79*” offers us a never-before-seen perspective of Ben Johnson.

had my eyes opened to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and the real Carl Lewis, whose enormous ego and motives are sickening.  Those who read this blog know what an idealist I am when it comes to the Olympics.  Yes, there’s even some naiveté there as well, because I can’t comfortably accept the idea that we should just enjoy the performance and to hell with trying to maintain the purity of sport.  When I asked Gordon about this and about the impact of 1988 on sports, he offered an interesting comment.  “I believe that the vast majority of times [in races] were not done clean and have never been done clean….1988 was certainly a wake-up call.”  He’s right, but it’s still a bitter pill for me to swallow.

After I watched “9.79*” I didn’t sleep well that evening.  Am I more upset about the injustice of Ben Johnson being the patsy, the fall guy?  Or is it the child in me who feels betrayed by those she once idolized?  After watching I felt angry, betrayed, and sad.   Carl Lewis wasn’t Ben Johnson’s victim.  If anything, it was the other way around.  Nor were Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Ray Stewart, of Desai Williams.  As for Robson da Silva and Calvin Smith, the only two of those eight runners that never tested positive for drugs, they were victims.  But so were we, the fans.  Especially those of us who are hopelessly idealistic and believe in the purity of sport.  When I posed this question to Dan Gordon, he was hesitant to say who—if anyone—is the victim.  Here again, he’s determined to remain objective.  “ ‘9.79*’ asks a lot of questions, [but doesn’t] provide answers,”  he reminded me.

As the interview concluded, Gordon relayed a conversation with a university professor on the issue of doping in sports.  “He said, ‘Remember that it’s just entertainment.’  Well, I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”

Neither am I.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

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“9.79*” Is a Win, Start to Finish

“9.79*” first aired October 9 on ESPN. The film will be re-broadcast October 20 and 21 on ESPN Classic.

Each generation seems to experience its own sporting scandal.  My generation is no different, and for this Olympic fanatic, the one which still haunts me is Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympics.  In fact, after watching “9.79*,” ESPN’s latest film in its “30 for 30” series, I think my heart is even heavier.  I walked away from this film with new questions, unexpected sympathy, and anger over multiple injustices.  BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Daniel Gordon has done his job and done it well.

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Filed under Athletics/Track & Field, Olympic Fever