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This review is from: 9.79* [DVD] (DVD)
It is highly unlikely that anyone stumbling onto this product page will be unfamiliar with the doping landmark that was the 100m men's final, held during the XXIV Olympiad in Seoul 1988. It follows then that even those with a basic interest for track and field athletics will be aware of the seismic ramifications of Ben Johnson's positive test result at those games; both on Johnson's own career and how public perception of high achievement has been tarnished across the sporting spectrum since.
What many people will not know is that of the eight finalists competing on that fateful day - Robson da Silva, Ray Stewart, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Calvin Smith, Ben Johnson, Desai Williams and Dennis Mitchell - six have since been associated, to varying degrees, with performance enhancing drugs during their competitive careers. Whereas the excellent Richard Moore book, 'The Dirtiest Race in History'  gives a great insight into the opposing worlds of Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, this documentary does give a bit more balance toward the other competing athletes through their own thoughts on the race from interviews throughout, and where applicable, direct address of their association with performance enhancing dalliances. Understandably however, the major individual pieces within 9.79 are on Johnson and Lewis themselves.
As well as the athletes, managers and coaches are interviewed fairly extensively, in addition to significantly weighted discussion with anti-doping official Don Catlin. His comments are the most interesting of all and piece together the chemical warfare within 1980s athletics, with much in the way of 'filling in the blanks' that the athletes don't quite get to themselves, for obvious reasons. Another great contributor is Angela Issajenko - an adopted Canadian 1980s athlete like Williams and Johnson - who is forthright about attitudes exhibited by coaches and competitors alike regarding drugs during the athletics `Golden Age'. As she effectively confessed all during the Dubin enquiry (footage of her testimony is included), she doesn't pull any punches here.
The documentary production is a combined effort between ESPN, BBC and other broadcasters. Hence the resulting archive footage within, not only of the 1988 final but of training clips and other relevant athletics events is plentiful and very good quality. There is also very interesting footage of the subsequent Dubin enquiry and testimony, race promoter interviews and Johnson's former coach Charlie Francis; all of which flesh out the state of 1980s athletics around this watershed moment, the popularity peak of the sport and the attitude of Johnson's coach to building the perfect sprinter. The anti-doping factual segments are quite haunting, and tantalisingly implicate some of the athletes on show without overtly naming names.
I was very pleased with the way 9.79 was put together, not only in terms of presentation but also the clarifications and explanations within for positive tests of the various athletes. For example, it was welcome to see the correct facts around Carl Lewis' 1988 Olympics trials drugs tests put forward, with due emphasis on the fact these would not register as positive by today's standards. I was also pleased to see some difficult questions being put forward to Lewis, Stewart and Mitchell under interview - although as you would expect, these barbs were neatly sidestepped.
The best aspect of 9.79 for me is the clarity in which one can see the contrasting attitudes of the competitors, twenty-five years on from that race. Some are predictable - Lewis' bluster and Mitchell's/Christie's somewhat nonchalant outlooks; Smith's controlled but clear bitterness at having been overshadowed as a clean athlete and Da Silva's carefree, 'pleased to be there and I can sleep easy at night' perspective, as the other untainted finalist. But I was surprised that I found Williams and Johnson especially under interview much more humble than I expected - interestingly both Canadians seemed repentant and regretful but were honest with what the ethos of 1980s athletics expected of them in order to win, and their resulting reliance on PEDs to achieve those expectations. Ray Stewart is probably the least featured of the athletes, but even his words carry weight on the introspective.
Minor criticisms - Lewis in particular is not put under enough duress for my liking when discussing his positive results which came to light in 2003. And there seems to have been a mental block by all concerned that suspicion over Christie was aroused as early as just prior to the 1988 games, where the 'Ginseng Tea' explanation was applied to his discovered levels of Pseudoephedrine - both stimulant and circumstance were extremely similar to Lewis' revealed results and hence it surprises me that a similar deal wasn't made over the British athlete. Perhaps Christie declined to discuss it...
To get all the athletes involved for 9.79 was an incredible achievement; especially considering the difficulty most writers and interviewers have in securing Carl Lewis for such discussion. Five stars for this documentary because the final product manages to segregate or cut through the crap, and leaves the viewer clear on who did or who was suspected of what - and despite this story being a well-trodden path now, the interviews and research manage to offer both new information and perspective. The apportioning of sympathy is left to the viewer, but it is clear that Johnson has been made a pariah for drug cheats in sport - even with the double-whammy during 1980s athletics of highly likely US corruption in handling positive tests and the last vestiges of the East German state doping plan 14.25. It is hard not to feel sorry for Johnson at times during 9.79, especially when seeing him rummage around in his basement, with all his remaining medals thrown in a box.
Requisite viewing for any sports fan.