It’s been almost a quarter-century since sprinter Ben Johnson lost his 100-meter gold medal after testing positive for anabolic steroids at the 1988 Summer Olympics. The documentary 9.79*, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, revisits Johnson’s downfall and makes clear that the narrative of doping scandals has hardly changed. From outright denials to claims of inadvertent usage to pressure to stay competitive with doping athletes, it’s the same as it ever was.
Director Daniel Gordon rounds up testimony from all eight runners who competed in the fateful 100-meter race, including Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Desai Williams. (It’s worth noting that while Johnson’s drug scandal is the one that has gone down in history, most of his fellow racers have since been involved in doping scandals of their own.) Gordon also interviews coaches and anti-doping experts, some of whom are staunch Johnson defenders and others who readily convey the difficulty of combating rampant steroid use.
Gordon clearly sympathizes with Johnson, who is more or less the central subject of the documentary. He sits down with Johnson for interviews at his home as he shows off his trove of medals and talks about the responsibility he felt to make his mother proud. But neither does Gordon shy away from the gory details of Johnson’s fall from grace. He examines the story from all angles, and while the documentary (which airs on ESPN in October) doesn’t offer any groundbreaking insights, it makes clear just how muddled the ethics of doping have been—and continue to be.