ESPN Films 9.79*: Documentary Succeeds at Flipping the Script of Historic Race

Tim KeeneyContributor IOctober 10, 2012

25 Sep 1988:  Portrait of Ben Johnson of Canada between events at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. \ Mandatory Credit: Gray  Mortimore/Allsport
Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

It's not easy to put a cheater in a good light, but that's exactly what director Daniel Gordon did with former sprinter Ben Johnson.

In ESPN's newest 30 for 30 film, 9.79*, Gordon tells the story of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and more specifically, the 100-meter dash.

In that race, Canadian Ben Johnson raced past his biggest competitor, American Carl Lewis, for the gold medal and a world-record setting time of 9.79 seconds. However, just days later, Johnson was stripped of his medal after testing positive for steroids. 

Lewis was awarded the gold medal. 

So, in a documentary that would tell the story of arguably the biggest scandal of all time, you would expect Lewis to be the hero and Johnson to be the zero, right?

Well, Gordon went all Sixth Sense on us and flipped the script with a major twist: Johnson comes across as the most likable person of the film, while Lewis comes across as the exact opposite. 

How exactly does this happen?

In a word, trust. Johnson, who is the only person in the race to admit to doping despite another runner admitting that 80 percent of the Olympians did in fact dope, comes across as the only person we can truly believe.

From ESPN:

“Why should I train hard doing it clean and then these other guys are not clean. Fair is fair.” – Ben Johnson. #30for30

— ESPN (@espn) October 10, 2012

It's hard, especially after watching a documentary focused on the increased use of drugs in track and field in the '80s, to believe that Johnson was the only runner in that race who had steroids in his system. In fact, it's nearly impossible to believe.

Does that, in any way, excuse cheating? Absolutely not. Does it excuse what Johnson did? No way. But the documentary makes it clear that the Canadian truly felt he did only what he had to do (via ESPN's 30 for 30 Twitter account):

“He was the doctor & he said if you don’t take it, you won’t make it.” – Ben Johnson #30for30

— 30 for 30 (@30for30) October 10, 2012

That makes you feel for him. It makes you sympathetic. It makes you like him.

On the other side of things, Carl Lewis, the supposed clean hero, comes across as a smug winner who is undoubtedly hiding some type of secret regarding doping. 

Who knows if Carl Lewis really is a villain who also doped at the time? Who knows if we really should feel bad for Ben Johnson? The point of the matter is that 9.79* got us to question our pre-conceived beliefs.

And that's what makes it a must-see documentary.