Last summer at the London Olympics saw the controversial topic of physical advantages in athletics raised, as sprinter Oscar Pistorius – himself on the end of similar accusations in the past – condemned the rules as unfair. Disputes over enhancement, however, have been around far longer than the likes of Pistorius and the infamous Lance Armstrong.
25 years ago, a number of the world’s greatest sprinters were embroiled in the same sort of controversy. 9.79* tells the story of the incredible 100m final at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul where a world record was [briefly] broken at the height of the Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson rivalry. It also explores the subsequent events that exposed the prevalence of drug-taking in the sport and changed the look of the record books forever.
The success story of the doc is seemingly the achievement of getting all eight competitors who ran to appear on camera and talk about their experiences. As well as Lewis and Johnson, the other notables are Linford Christie – who would eventually win a gold medal and consequently become embroiled in drug controversy himself – and the vehemently anti-drug athlete Calvin Smith.
In fact Smith, who finished fourth but was moved up to third after Johnson’s post-race disqualification (but was never given a ceremony), was the only runner of the fastest five never to test positive for drugs. Though Johnson’s disqualification meant that Lewis was given retrospective gold, Linford Christie raises the salient issue as to whether Lewis should have received the same treatment for clearly running out of his lane on at least one occasion during the now notorious race. The film is littered with these interesting insights into the events, providing the necessary contexts for fans and newcomers to the sport/race alike.
The event itself might be an appealing moment of sporting history, but the wider problem is the repercussions it had for athletics and drug-enhancement tactics as a whole. The fascinating issue of the DQ is that, whilst Johnson and his coach eventually admitted to cheating, they also claim that it would not have been for the substance discovered (‘stanozolol’), prompting questions as to whether Lewis’ team-mate didn’t spike Johnson to intentionally cause his downfall.
And so whilst 9.79* is part-history, part-sport, part-social change, it hangs the narrative on the fierce and intense rivalry that had developed between Lewis and Johnson. Lewis’ on-screen persona in the doc as he talks is one of paranoia and delusion in the most accidentally humorous way possible for engaging (and yet simultaneously losing) an audience. Johnson and the others aren’t infallible, but they appear to talk more truths and with more apparent dignity than Lewis does.
Whilst this conflict between the duo has energy and gusto, there is something in the documentary resembling a minor lack of narrative drive. There’s backstory and action and character, but the progression from this rivalry to the pervasiveness of performance-enhancing drugs in sport is such an expansive chronicle that it requires and deserves further depth as a discussion in order to be truly great.
Despite this, it’s a marvellously unique insight into a particular moment of sporting history. Even though the world record was wiped away (hence the asterix), the stain that it had put upon the sport could not be vanquished quite so easily. It leaves us to wonder: how many other names that were written before it and how many more that have come since deserve to be there on merit alone, and which of them made it into the record books due to an enhanced performance?