Does new doc redeem Ben Johnson?
As I've noted, one of my favourite films at this year's TIFF was a documentary about the men's 100 meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In the ESPN produced doc, director Daniel Gordon snagged access to all 8 athletes in the race and gets their perspectives on who was and wasn't cheating and reveals that the US track and field team may have arranged for a friend of Carl Lewis' to spike Ben Johnson's beer with steroids just before his career defining drug test.
I was drawn to this film because I've always had a soft spot for Johnson. I used to watch him race back when the track meets at Copps Coliseum were a big deal. Like many Canadians I was shocked and disappointed with what transpired in Seoul but I always felt this one time national icon was too much the fall guy for what was wrong with amateur sport. Now, it seems like many others might agree. At the world premiere screening at TIFF, both the film and Johnson received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Post-TIFF I was able to connect with Gordon to talk about the film and how he feels history will treat our city's most infamous athlete.
Do you feel sympathy for Ben Johnson?
It's actually a more complex answer than a simple yes or no. I feel sympathy for Ben in what he went through, what he faced when he tested positive, and when you take into account the backdrop of drugs in track and field in the 80s. To look at it purely from a moral high ground, Ben cheated, he should receive no sympathy. Once you understand the fuller picture, it's not quite as clear cut as that. And Ben has had to live with this for nearly a quarter of a century, knowing that he has been singled out whilst others got away with it.
How do you think history will treat him?
I think slowly but surely people have come to realize that he wasn't the only one, but that does not necessarily increase his popularity stakes. Recently though, when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, local journalists told me they sensed a forgiveness from the Canadian people, and a realization that maybe they had been too quick to judge him at the time.
I felt the film builds a case that Carl Lewis was on drugs but doesn't explicitly assert it. What's your opinion?
I disagree. The film builds a case that rumours flew about Carl but that no one could prove anything and the testing was in its infancy - even the US Olympic Committee didn't know the extent of drug use until 1983 when they ran a drug testing programme and could not believe how many positives they found. Carl is adamant in the film that most athletes choose not to take drugs. His manager Joe Douglas is adamant that he never demanded race promoters don't test his athletes. I heard the same rumours about Ben Johnson's camp, that they would insist that Ben wasn't tested or they wouldn't show up.
Carl Lewis' positive tests from the US Olympic trials in 1988 would not produce a positive result today, but they have left a stain. Carl himself says those who want to believe he took drugs will do so, those who believe him will believe him. For me, I try to take a non judgemental approach, lay out the facts and the caveats and let the audience make up its own mind.
The film makes a strong case that Lewis' Santa Monica Track team teammate Andre Jackson spiked Johnson's drink to make him test positive. Do you have any doubt this took place?
This whole episode will have doubt in it until the day Andre Jackson comes out publicly and reveals exactly what, if anything, happened. Some days I sat in the edit suite telling myself this whole story was fantasy. Other days I would watch it and wonder: "Could it have happened?" And occasionally I would be convinced it was true! I had long riddle-fueled conversations with Andre (who lives in Angola), where sometimes I felt I was on the verge of a confession, but in the end I never quite got to the bottom of it and the mystery remains.
Of the eight sprinters, Linford Christie has been reported as the most difficult to get to agree to do the film. Why was he the toughest to get? And what did do to finally get him to agree to participate?
All eight had their reservations about coming on board. None of them have had a great relationship with the media and I was put into that category. In the end it came down to trust. Linford agreed to meet me without a camera, I showed him some clips of the film to confirm he was the last one, showed him some stills of us on location with the others (he remains friends with most of them) and finally he agreed. I was always convinced I would get all eight, but it ended up being closer than I would have liked.
What was the audience's reaction to the film at the TIFF premiere?
Long and loud standing ovation. Not necessarily for me, as Johnson was right behind me! I invited him and Desai Williams (Lane 7) as it was their home town (funds don't stretch to flying anyone else out). Desia had a prior engagement he couldn't cancel, but sent his wife along, who loved it.
Have you screened the film for any of the other athletes in the race?
Other than Ben, none of the athletes have seen it, but Robson da Silva is attending the gala screening in Rio at the festival in a couple of weeks' time.
What do you want viewers to take away after watching this film?
Watch with your eyes wide open and enjoy! I prefer people to watch the film and make their own minds up than tell people how I want them to feel. Ultimately the audience is intelligent enough to think for itself, it's not necessary for me to ram my own views down anyone's throat. There wasn't anyone I met or interviewed for the film who I didn't like, I found everyone had a story to tell and I hope I've gone some way to telling it.
9.79* will be broadcast on ESPN in October. It will appear on TSN at some point in the future but a date(s) has not yet been confirmed.