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Ben Johnson doc “9.79*” and the 1988 controversy

Oct 9, 2012, 1:27 PM EST

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After witnessing Usain Bolt run 9.58, 9.63, and 9.69 in the 100m, and seeing six other men dip below the 9.80 mark since Beijing four years ago, it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember a time when just breaking 10 seconds was an incredible feat.

But before the 1988 Seoul Games, 9.83 was the benchmark, set by Canadian specimen Ben Johnson who pumped his imposing frame to victory at the ’87 world championships in Rome. A year later, convicted of doping and stripped of his gold medal, he was made an example and a pariah by the IOC.

Johnson’s story is told in the documentary “9.79*,” premiering Tuesday at 8pm EDT on ESPN.  But the film is really the story of two men: Johnson and American hero Carl Lewis, both of whom – the film hints – used every bit of human will and scientific assistance to fight for the title of “worlds fastest man.”

And while it’s Johnson and his performance-enhanced 9.79 that are once again clearly under the microscope, it’s Lewis’s bitter protest, even as he now holds the event’s gold medal nearly 25 years later, that stands out in stark contrast to Johnson’s blunt honesty. After all, Johnson has nothing more to hide.

Director Daniel Gordon does an excellent job of putting both facts and rumors on the table and letting the two men speak for themselves. Then he adds the important context by interviewing doctors, coaches, managers, IOC lab techs, and the other six finalists from the ’88 race, and puts together a Ken-Burns-esque documentary that is arguably the best, most cinematic of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ series to date.

After all is said, Gordon, neither prosecutor nor defender, leaves us to be the jury. We’ll never know if Lewis doped or if Johnson was sabotoged, but we can lean with help from the film, which details how Lewis tested positive for three stimulants at the ’88 U.S. Trials before the USOC deemed it an “inadvertent positive.”

For now, Lewis lives on in the record books as track’s most decorated Olympian. Johnson is just a cheater. We know it’s an accurate tag, but we’re not sure it’s one he should wear alone.