'9.79*' Revisits '88 HGH Scandal

Johnson comes off likable, Lewis a bit of a jerk

Ben Johnson … the villain?
Ben Johnson … the villain?

This is what a 30 for 30 documentary should be. ESPN’s second volume of documentaries gets back on track by focusing on a singular story, in this case the 1988 controversy surrounding the men’s 100-meter final in Daniel Gordon's 9.79*.

It’s taken me a while to figure out why I love ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. I wasn’t sure if it was because of a subconscious devotion to Bill Simmons, the creator of the series and the first sportswriter whose articles I’ve read religiously since I was 16, or if it was because the documentaries’ stories were so well-told. I’m sure it’s a mixture of the two, but I think the main reason I love these docs so much is because they introduce me to a sports story I had never heard of when I thought I had heard them all.

If you were born after 1980, you probably had no knowledge about the USFL (Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?), Jimmy the Greek (The Legend of Jimmy the Greek), and that not only did SMU have a football team, but it was actually really good (Pony Excess).

Over the past week, ESPN has advertised 9.79* as a doc focusing on one of the biggest sports scandals of all time, but if you were born after 1980 (and aren’t Canadian) like me, you’ve probably never heard of nor cared about Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. So to spend two hours discovering who Johnson was and what the 1988 HGH scandal meant for sports is a history lesson I can easily learn something from and enjoy.

What I like about 9.79* can be summed up by a quote from The Wire: “They flipped it.” My favorite 30 for 30s have us root for the villain and hate the hero.* In this case, I felt bad for Johnson, the admitted cheater who seemed the most truthful out of all the runners interviewed.** Every other runner said they never doped but another interviewee said at least 80% of the Olympians did. With those conflicting testimonials, Johnson is the only one we can truly believe. When you trust a man you begin to like him, and by the end of the documentary I understood why Johnson cheated and felt a little sorry he was the only one who truly suffered from cheating.

*I never thought I’d root for showboat Reggie Miller, but he was just so likable in Winning Time. But the best example of this tactic is turning ultimate goat and villain Steve Bartman into a sympathetic victim in Catching Hell.

**Then again, you kind of have no choice but to be truthful when the truth about you has already been exposed. It’s much easier to hold on to a lie when no one knows anything.

And if Johnson was the sympathetic villain, Carl Lewis gets to play the role of the hero we learn to hate. I don’t know if anybody could ever come out as clean as Lewis and yet look as shitty as he did in this film. The self-centered Olympic legend admits early on that he only went to college so that he could get a degree in “Carl Lewis.” Usually an admission like that is a way of saying, “Yeah, I was immature as a kid, but I’ve since grown and learned from my mistakes.” I got no sense of that from Lewis.

Despite no real proof that Lewis had ever cheated, Gordon takes subtle digs at him throughout the film. At one point, a doctor says that athletes who are wearing braces in their adult years are almost certainly doping. Ten minutes later we catch glimpses of Lewis in interviews in the '80s, flashing those tinsel teeth.

Lewis even does simple dickish things. When he says he went to shake Johnson’s hand after losing the 1988 100m, he says he did it “because everyone was watching.” I get the sense that he did this not to be a good sport, but to steal Johnson’s spotlight.

Thanks to this film, not only do I think Carl Lewis is an awful singer,*** but I also think he’s a bit of a prick. Am I the only one?

***You knew this link was coming, right? This is how most people under 30 will remember Carl Lewis … which is how it should be.

Ultimately thanks to engaging characters that aren’t limited to Lewis and Johnson – Canadian sprinter and admitted doper Angella Issajenko steals a couple scenes —this film succeeds in taking a doping story that’s 20-plus years old and bringing it back to the limelight, which is exactly where guys like Carl Lewis want to it to be.

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