'9.79' Documentary Asks, How Many Of Ben Johnson's Rivals In Olympic Games Sprint Final Were Drug-Free?

DOCUMENTARY: How Many Of Ben Johnson's Rivals Were Drug-Free?

Everyone of sentient age in 1988 can remember where they were when they heard that sprinter Ben Johnson had been stripped of his gold medal at the Seoul Olympic Games.

25 years later, I can remember the shiver that went through me as Des Lynam was handed a piece of paper live on air, and stared solemnly at the camera, warning us of the "biggest news of this or possibly any other Olympics" that was to follow.

The 1988 Seoul Olympic Games 100m final was the most-watched race in history

So can documentary maker Daniel Gordon, who has focused his cameras on that moment in history for forthcoming documentary '9.79', but widened his gaze to include not just Johnson, or his archi-rival Carl Lewis, but all eight men who lined up at the start of the most watched race in history.

"I realised that each of these men had a story to tell, about what had brought them there, how they felt during the race, what happened to them afterwards. It was a bigger story than just a drugs scandal."

But, with drugs becoming the headline in history, it wasn't easy to get them all to speak. It's testament to Gordon's powers of persuasion that all eight, including our own Linford Christie who ended up with a silver medal, speak so frankly and without rancour about those heady days, what they all agree was a "golden age" for athletics.

Director Daniel Gordon spoke to all eight men in the race - Ben Johnson (Canada) Calvin Smith (USA) Linford Christie (GB) Carl Lewis (US) Ray Stewart (Jamaica) and Robson da Silva (Brazil)

But, every single athlete told the director that he, and he alone, had been the only drug-free athlete to line up that day. "So... someone, somewhere, is lying," says Gordon. "I've left it up to the viewer to make up their own minds about that one. The fact that there was so much suspicion around them all was, in itself, interesting."

Of the eight, the two great bookends - brooding, stocky, apparently arrogant Canadian Ben Johnson and tall, charismatic extrovert American counterpart Carl Lewis - are always going to be the most controversial.

Johnson denied taking drugs for a long time afterwards, and Gordon describes him as bitter that "he took the hit". But he also found Johnson, back in his native Canada and with a lifetime ban following further skirmishes, to be "very warm and friendly - I think his sullen persona really came out of his shyness, he just wanted to run, whereas Carl Lewis was quite open about wanting to be a showman and make money".

Ben Johnson was in denial for a long time about his drug-taking around the 1988 Games

With such large rewards on offer, it was no doubt a murky old world, of which Ben Johnson, the fastest, apparently the most arrogant, the one who got caught, was, in Gordon's view, "the scapegoat - the villain, whom it suited other people to call out".

But Gordon is also of the view, after all his research, that purity in sport is something we have to be prepared to do without, even now.

"We love the Olympics, we love the World Cup, we love these huge events. We always want more." he reflects now.

"But the idea of purity is absolute nonsense. We're projecting something onto our heroes, when, since the beginning of sport in ancient Greece, it has always been unfair, and competitors have always taken whatever advantage they can. So the idea of purity in sport is nonsense. We have to look at sport with our eyes open."

'9.79' is on limited release in UK cinemas from Friday 20 September, and available on DVD from Monday 23 September. Watch the trailer below...


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