[9 October 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You could see the body changes and that’s when you know something’s not right.
—Russ Rogers, US Olympic Spring Coach 1988
“Athletes can see everything that’s going on, and they know more than the public.” With this brief assessment, US sprinter Calvin Smith sets up the dilemma for 9.79*, Daniel Gordon’s mesmerizing documentary on the men’s 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics. Long renowned as the race that establishes the identity of the fastest man on Earth, in this instance it created lasting confusion—about what constitutes rules and records, fairness and competition.
Initially, this confusion had to do with performance enhancing drugs, namely, the revelation that the winner, the Canadian team’s Ben Johnson, was taking them. But 9.79* presses past that point of history to consider the more pervasive use of a variety of drugs by world class runners. The film begins its investigation in interviews with all eight participants in that remarkable 1988 race, including Smith and Johnson (who set the asterisked world record) and also Carl Lewis, Johnson’s primary rival, along with Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Robson da Silva, Ray Stewart, and Desai Williams, as well as coaches and teammates. The notion that Lewis was and remains suspected of using drugs as well is barely spoken by anyone here, but it pervades the film.
The story begins with the astounding success of the runners. “I began to wonder, how did no one ever say anything like, ‘How can they possibly be performing like this?’” says Gordon in his “Director Statement.” Implicit in his question is the answer provided by the film, that no one had to ask because everyone knew, everyone within the community, anyway. Just so, some interview subjects suggest they knew, but decided against speaking out, whether because they were also cheating or didn’t see the use of drugs as cheating because everyone else was doing it, or because they wanted to preserve their own ability to travel and compete around the world. A range of individuals in the racing world had a stake in preserving the illusion, a point that might be made about most any sport (or other activity) that so invests in its celebrities as a means to shape, promote, and of course monetize that activity.
The media attention to the rivalry between Johnson and Lewis throughout the ‘80s is shown here to be a quandary, a not-so-inadvertent marketing campaign for the sport and the other racers (who benefited if they were in a race featuring one or both of the rivals), but also, an avenue to potential exposure. The campaign meant that the competition had to be clean, at least to what Smith calls the “public.” And so officials determined to clamp down on cheating, instituting testing at meets, though not during the rest of a racer’s year. This meant, according to Dr. Don Catlin, director of the UCLA Olympic Lab 1983-1984, that even though the early testing programs were called “education programs,” this consisted mostly of educating athletes as to schedules and when to expect what.
Apart from details as to who might have done what when, the film suggests a broader problem, having to do with who knows what. While much has been made of the BALCO scandals, from Barry Bonds to Marion Jones, the documentary indicates that efforts to cheat, rudimentary as well as more sophisticated, have been in play for decades—and also that knowledge of those efforts affect everyone, those who cheat and those who do not.
During the ‘80s, the Lewis-Johnson rivalry provided an obvious boon to the sport (much as home runs help baseball, increased stamina helps the Tour de France or bigger, faster bodies help NFL TV ratings), but the costs of cheating were hardly clear—whether these are counted in physical, moral, or political effects. Johnson stands here as a visible casualty, as he rummages through a box of medals in his basement, looks at old film of the race or out a window, his face shadowed, vaguely puffy and sad.
As he once worked to be “the fastest in the world,” he says, he also had “some fear in me, I didn’t want to fail.” And so he believed in his coach and in the results produced by drugs. “We would go once a week and get injections,” Johnson remembers, echoing the recollection of a teammate Angella Issajenko, former Canadian 100m record holder. Their coach Charlie Francis saw the opportunity presented by drugs, and out his racers on regimens. The stakes seemed high, and Lewis was winning most of his contests with Johnson. A shift occurs when Johnson wins the 100m at the 1987 World Championships and silver medalist Lewis raises questions concerning Johnson’s performance. At this point, recalls coach Wayne Williams, “Carl was more that way, he was going to try to make it seem like it wasn’t so much him getting beat, but it was something else.”
What’s striking is that so many people knew what that something else was. If many of the interviewees in 9.79* sound cautious in their phrasing, the film leaves little doubt that the knowledge was widespread: the athletes and coaches knew their human capacities, and dramatic improvements or extraordinary recoveries from injuries: Johnson heads to St. Kitts to recover from a hamstring before the Olympics, working with Dr. George Astaphan rather than Charlie Francis, while Lewis takes his own measures. His coach, Joe Douglas, insists on Lewis’ purity, pointing to “pictures,” where “You look at his eyes and he has not taken drugs.” Here the film provides a picture that doesn’t precisely support what he’s saying, with Lewis’ eyes looking wide and not a little odd.
9.79* doesn’t make a case one way or the other regarding Lewis, and in his interview here, he presents himself as clean and never proved otherwise. Still, the film makes very clear that the world that produced Carl Lewis and that he now represents, the track and field world and the sports marketing world beyond that, is already indicted. It’s not that he’s guilty by association, but more that guilt must be measured in subtle and complicated ways, not absolutely and not simply.