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Does new doc redeem Ben Johnson?

Posted by Tim / September 18, 2012

Ben JohnsonAs 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.



j-rock / September 18, 2012 at 04:15 pm
It's been known for a long time that pretty much every man who lined up for that race in Seoul was on something. Nobody was running clean back then. Lewis failed at least one drug test during the trials, and had the results hushed up by the US authorities, which makes their holier-than-thou grandstanding in the wake of Johnson's positive test all the more offensive and hypocritical. The IOC should either declare the entire race null and void, or give Ben his gold medal back. Drugs or not, until Usain Bolt showed up, that was the best 100m final I had ever seen.

I also believe him when he says that his sample was sabotaged. While he admitted to long-time steroid use, they had their cycles worked out, and wouldn't have been so sloppy as to test positive during the biggest race of Ben's career. Someone made sure that he failed that particular test.

I'm nearly at the point where I think that we should just stop wasting time with drug testing. Let's start keeping new records, let everyone take anything that they want, and see what kind of ridiculous performances athletes come up with. Who wouldn't love to see 500+ foot home runs, or a sprinter run a 9.5 in the 100m?
lol / September 18, 2012 at 04:19 pm
As having a close family member who was an olympic level sprinter..... she said the difference between the American and Canadian sprint teams and culture is that the Americans Hide and Protect their athletes while the Canadians Expose and Leave them for the wolves
matts replying to a comment from lol / September 18, 2012 at 04:49 pm
Uh, so the difference is between hypocrisy and honesty and you're advocating for the former? Screw that, the guy got what he had coming, too bad others didn't.
Ben Johnson / September 18, 2012 at 05:18 pm
Can't wait to see this. Wish I had been able to get in to see it at TIFF. My understanding is that virtually everyone was juicing at the time and that they made an example of Johnson; and that doesn't really change the fact that he was insanely fast compared the the rest of the field. 9.79 was/is crazy fast. I still like watching that old race.
BillyO / September 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm
Ben wasn't the only one who was one something and he got a raw deal. To me he will always be the 1988 champion and the fastest man on Earth, at the time.

tracky / September 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm
Carl Lewis was easily as juiced as Johnson but the USTAF and USOC are exceptional at protecting American athletes with all kinds of legal bullshit and slimey maneuvers.

Crap like this:
"The U.S. Olympic Committee and American sport federations for more than a decade allowed athletes who failed drug tests in qualifying events to compete in the Olympic Games and other world-class competitions.

The Orange County Register reviewed more than 10,000 pages of confidential documents from 1988 to 2000 that show for the first time how the U.S. Olympic movement failed to deal with its own doping issues and kept test results a secret while accusing other countries of failing to control drug use in athletics.

The documents reveal more than 100 cases in which athletes failed tests that would have disqualified them at the Olympics but were ruled "inadvertent use" by U.S. officials."

and truly amazing bullshit like this:
"Without proof (that) a substance was used for the express purpose of enhancing performance in competition, there was not a doping violation," the USOC's Seibel said."
tracky / September 18, 2012 at 10:50 pm
where did my comment go?
Shawn / September 19, 2012 at 12:37 am
How about looking at the Olympics that just USA's Justin Gatlin tested positive just ~2 years ago and yet he got a bronze in London and none of the commentators ever mention his past...
Mark / September 19, 2012 at 09:34 am
Ben Johnson was robbed of his gold, because they handed it off to Carl Lewis after his positive test.

Carl Lewis test positive 3 times before the Olympics and shouldn't have been competing to begin with.
Chris replying to a comment from Mark / September 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm
Even crazier than that, when the documentary replayes the race (which it does a few times) you actually see that Carl Lewis steps outside of his lane more than once in the final, particularly when he's looking over at Ben - the same thing that got the Canadian relay team DQ's in the 4x100 final in London after they came third.

sprinter replying to a comment from Adam / October 2, 2012 at 03:23 am
then as has been proposed by at least one philosopher of sport, if health is actually the concern, test for health and not for drugs. test liver profiles, hematocrit, etc. health is (in the philosophical literature) a woefully inadequate reason for banning drugs in sport.
sprinter replying to a comment from Chris / October 2, 2012 at 03:26 am
so much misinformation. the relay team stepped on the inside line on a curve. that's a dq. stepping on the outside line is not, unless (and this applies to the straightaways as well) you impede another athlete. inside on a curve leads to a shorter distance travelled, and is thus against the rules. outside on a curve is a longer distance travelled, and is thus considered to not be an advantage.
Sudsy replying to a comment from Adam / October 17, 2012 at 09:31 pm
I completely disagree with this comment. Steroids save people lives every day. You need to get you facts straight before writing idiotic comments like "steroids will kill". They are banned because they help athletes train above their genetic potential. Cortisone shots are far more dangerous than anabolic steroids and they are used in sports very frequently.
Sudsy / October 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm
This is an excellent documentary. Most People are very ignorant when it comes to Steroids and other banned stimulants. Ben Johnson got thrown under the bus and demonized by our country when we should have been supporting him. Yes he denied it at first but so did all the others in that race. Steroids are not magic pills. To perform at that level athletes have to be extremely dedicated, have great genetics, and train harder than most can comprehend. They were all using banned substances, whether it was AAS, HGH, stimulants etc. As Ben Johnson said in the documentary "fair is fair". He was the fastest and the Americans were envious. Calvin smith can shove that up is pompous a$@!! And anyone that thinks that the Olympics and professional sports are clean today is very naive. These drugs are here to stay. Especially when there is huge money on the line.
Thomas Brown / January 14, 2013 at 05:59 pm
It was clear the flim maker slanted it toward ben johnson. Johnson is a cheat an wasnt a great sprinter.
Mike replying to a comment from Thomas Brown / June 13, 2013 at 12:24 am
Huh? But...he won at the Olympic level. Have you not watched the doc or read the previous comments?
chris / December 13, 2014 at 02:31 am
the one part that can't be argued is simply how fast ben was at getting out of the blocks. his starts were probably the most amazing part of the races.
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