ESPN 30 for 30: 9.79*

Directed by Daniel Gordon

Usain Bolt is currently the darling of the track and field world. In an age when football, basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey are the world’s biggest, track and field springs up every 4 years to capture the attention and oftentimes the hearts and awe of spectators worldwide. There is something truly special about seeing these world class athletes duke it out on the track all in the name of national pride. And even though Bolt may be Jamaican, his personality and athletic feats are electric. The same sensation was seen in Seoul, South Korea for the Olympic games in the summer of 1988, when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson shattered the field and set a new World Record for the 100m dash: 9.79 seconds.

The 100m Dash has long been the ultimate test of the sprinter. Eight competitors, each running for themselves as fast as their bodies can take them in a race that lasts just 10 seconds. One of sports greatest spectacles. In an era when American Carl Lewis, arguably the most famous American track and field star ever, save Jesse Owens of course, was dominating the world with not only his speed on the track, but his cocky personality off, Ben Johnson came seemingly from nowhere to start beating Lewis on a consistent basis. While everyone the world over was just amazed at Johnson’s physique and blazing speed, those in the track and field circle were growing ever skeptical of Johnson and his potential use of performance enhancing drugs. A matter that eventually boiled over in Seoul that summer of 1988.

The world of sports has been a stir with the issue of performance enhancing drugs for some time now, and quite frankly it has grown tiresome. As a passionate fan of baseball I find it difficult each year to get excited about Spring Training and the start of the season when every year a new story breaks about the continued use of PEDs. The idea of manufactured physical power, endurance and speed dilutes the game and cheats those who use their natural abilities to entertain and impress the fans. It also becomes quite another things when it comes to the athletes themselves policing their sports for these cheaters. There are some who are of the opinion that belonging to a sport places you in an inner community, a secret society almost that shields itself from letting any insider information out. But then you have the case of the arrogant Carl Lewis, whose psyche was damaged by repetitive losses to Ben Johnson from 1986-1988. He was not damaged because he was losing, he was damaged because he knew he was being cheated.

Director Daniel Gordon presents a few compelling portraits as he interviews all the men who competed in the race that day, and as a result we are shown a variety of sides to the pride and drive for success of an athlete. Many will have different answers for what success actually means. Most shocking of the figures is Ben Johnson himself. A now admitted user of PEDs during his reign atop the track world as the fastest man alive, Johnson seems clouded by fame and success, unable to see anything wrong with what he did to rise to the top. Sure, I suppose it is a matter of opinion whether taking PEDs is detrimental to a sport which makes its money on entertainment of the masses, but I don’t think it is a stretch to say the majority of fans would feel cheated. This inability of Johnson to see what he did wrong is hurtful. It is hurtful of his image, but it is also hurtful of his legacy, and what this means for all future athletes who strive to be the best, all the while perhaps lacking physically by just a hair. It is a difficult temptation to avoid in the world of mad money athletics.

It turns out that a number of the sprinters in the race that afternoon in the summer of 1988 have gone on to be linked to PEDs in their careers, but those who have proven clean are the athletes that should be promoted as role models for the thousands of young men and women who compete for their pride, dignity, and competitive spirit. The finest example of this is Brazilian sprinter Robson da Silva, lane 1, whose obscurity in the track and field world has been embraced as he hangs on to the pride of knowing he raced to the best of his natural ability. His pride overtook the temptation to take drugs to improve his performance. These are the athletes that make sports special. Athletes like Ben Johnson make it poisonous and fake, lacking any signs of true passion. Gordon’s film is not a revealing story today, but it is one that looks at and discovers not only the evils of sports today, but more importantly, it displays the courage and passion of those who ultimately compete in the right way.

*** – Very Good



  1. I haven't seen a lot of the recent 30 for 30 movies, but I did catch this one. Johnson's insistence that he did nothing wrong wasn't a big surprise. What I found interesting is how many of those sprinters were implicated later in drug use like you mention. Similar to cycling, it makes me wonder if anyone was really clean. I'm even skeptical about Lewis, who is really arrogant. I was a fan when I was a kid, but he does not come off well in this documentary. Good stuff.


  2. Like Dan I also feel very skeptical about Lewis and was shocked about the bit where the person who did not want to be interviewed said he might or might not have put steroids in Johnson's beer. It was also surprising that they had a bit about braces and the link to substance use and had a shot of Lewis wearing braces. It is a shame he was not asked about it.


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