Daniel Gordon on 9.79*

9.79 DVD CoverAt the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Canada’s Ben Johnson beat his US rival Carl Lewis in the men’s 100m finals, setting a new world record of 9.79 seconds. But the world’s fastest man was found to have used steroids and stripped of his title.

In his new documentary 9.79*, which is out on DVD now, British director Daniel Gordon looks back at the events of the summer of 1988.

How did you convince these eight athletes to talk to you?
I set out to interview all eight; the whole reason for making the film was not to hear from one or two of the people that ran that race, but to hear from all eight and to find out their story. Then it was a case of where they were, who they were represented by in some cases, and to just try to persuade them to talk, then going out to meeting them. In some cases, it was a series of phone conversations first before they agreed.

9.79_Daniel Gordon headshot

25 years on, the way these men talk about the race is still very careful. Was there anyone who said, ‘no, I don’t want to talk’ at the start but you managed to get them to talk eventually?
Yes, there was some reticence from a couple of them. But for me, if I ask you a question and you don’t want to answer it, then don’t answer it. Some of them said, ‘I don’t want to talk about this or that’ and I said ‘well that’s fine’, and in the end they would talk about some stuff and actually it ended up that nothing was off limits.

A couple of them said they had been treated badly by the press, especially the British media and blah blah blah. I would say, ‘Trust me I’m a filmmaker; it’s fine, don’t worry about it; look at my body of work’ and they would say, ‘Yeah, I still don’t really trust you.’ And then actually once they started they couldn’t stop because this was probably the best period of their life, certainly professionally, and they love talking about it. Most athletes love talking about themselves.

Did you find any sympathy for the athletes using steroids as they see it as a norm, which arguably comes through their narrative?
I try to be as non-judgemental as I can in all my documentaries. I do go down a certain path and try to remain as neutral as possible and let the audience make up their own mind, but I really felt it when we went back to the stadium in Seoul to do a little bit of filming and it’s really not changed at all after 25 years, it was a really bizarre feeling.

You kind of transport yourself back to 1988 and to think that these eight men have been training for this all of their lives. They were born to do it. They got themselves into a position where they did it and it’s ‘On your marks, get set’ and they are crouched ready and it’s not going to be tomorrow, it’s not going to be next week, it’s right here, right now. Then the gun goes and you could just feel it.

And at that point I thought, ‘you know that is unbelievable pressure to be under and you could either perform or you don’t.’ I know one of the guys absolutely under-performed and has regretted it ever since. Because at that moment it wasn’t that he was beaten by other people, I think he felt that even at his best he wouldn’t have won, that he didn’t give his best on that day and that is something that will always live with him. I find that absolutely crushing in one way.

These guys are great. They are amazing to watch, it makes great theatre, but at the end of the day, it’s not that big a deal although they are put up on this pedestal and, equally as Ben Johnson found, once they are knocked off it, they are knocked off it big time and publicly. A couple of times we were walking around Toronto and people were calling Ben ‘cheater’, and it’s just like really? Even this far on? With people knowing what they ought to know in terms of context, they still consider him a cheater.

Ben Johnson didn’t seem to play the media very well, while Carl Lewis did. There’s a wonderful moment in 9.79* where scientists you’ve interviewed talk about how steroids can affect the jawline and leave a user needing braces. The way the film was edited, Lewis smiles during footage from an interview in the late 1980s and he’s wearing a full set of braces.
[Laughs] And I don’t say anything. Ben was really shy and had a stutter. He was an immigrant from Jamaica who got picked on and bullied at school and found his saviour with [coach] Charlie Frances who took him under his wing. He found his calling in track and field and he wouldn’t have had acceptance in that society in any other way. And then he becomes number one.

It’s sad he became Canada’s golden boy until he was found to have taken these substances, overnight he became a Jamaican-born Canadian in Canada. And that tells you everything you need to know. But he didn’t play the media because he didn’t really know how to play the media. And Carl had gone to university as he said to ‘get a degree in Carl Lewis.’ Lewis was middle class to upper-middle class, well brought up, well educated; knew what he wanted to do and did it.

Ben was a totally different type of athlete and person and that contrast makes for great theatre at the time and obviously makes for great film. And they are still the same today. They still have a clear dislike of each other with just a little smattering of respect buried in there somewhere. I found that quite fascinating that they haven’t really moved on in all that time.

What drives them?
I’m extremely competitive. I don’t really want to loose a game of pool, even after five beers I still want to win. And for these guys, their whole life is about being number one. They are fast and they don’t want to finish second. It’s not about making the numbers up.

Dennis Mitchell has a great line: ‘We were the lane fillers’ [in the 1988 Olympic final]. He was a lane filler in 88 but by 1992 he wanted to win. All athletes, by their very nature are selfish because they want everything to go their way, to make sure that they are number one. And I think you have to have that mentality to be the supreme athlete in all disciplines.

It’s a bit like working, you know; if you have a journalist and they want to be the best reporter on the paper or one day be the editor – he wants to write, he wants to do it, he might shit all over his colleague to get the story. It’s the same mentality. It’s driven by the need to be the best. Knowing what athletes do, their training and discipline, and what they loose out on in terms of adolescence, childhood and adulthood, they miss out on all of that they sacrifice it all, to do that. Then in some cases they will do everything possible to do that. There is no point in doing all that training if you are not going to be at least in the final with a shout at a medal and ideally, a gold one.

That’s something your documentary does very well. It shows theses guys didn’t just take steroids and bang, they ran fast. You show they spent four years training to run under 10 seconds.
The race happens so quickly but in their minds, it’s really quite slow. They have less than 10 seconds to figure everything out, but in their minds it’s really really slow. It’s amazing that they have been training in this way their entire lives. Everything, every little minutia they know. I find that absolutely amazing.

How steroid use begins is interesting. Someone the athlete trusts, perhaps as a father figure, offers them something to improve their performance. The question arises would someone do it?
I wouldn’t judge anyone for taking it because I’ve never been in that position myself. And actually when you think about it, most people would be tempted. When you think about it, most Biblical stories are about temptation. That’s why those stories have always been doing the rounds.

Also a real revelation to me was that you can’t just pop a pill and there you go. Angella Taylor-Issajenko pretty much said to me, ‘You take steroids you might be the fastest donkey, but you’re still a donkey you won’t be a racehorse.’ If a racehorse takes steroids, then they will be the fastest racehorse. And there are no shortcuts. Everyone, even the coaches who admit that they put their athletes on steroids were saying that it’s not a shortcut to victory. You still have to put in unbelievable hours and unbelievable training into it. What the drugs help you with is the recovery and muscle building. It helps but it’s not the big tick that ends everything.

Not that I’m saying anyone is on drugs, but can we expect athletes to do these incredible times, like Bolt’s 9.58 and for them not to have some assistance?
Bolt is doing 9.58 and that’s faster than Johnson who was on a steroids programme. Yes you might want to question certain things yourself. And can you really believe it’s up to 1.5 seconds faster than what Johnson managed to do without anything?

They might have a faster track, you might eat yams and all the rest of it, but it’s kind of, watch 9.79* and then try to work out that the two other men who have run the next fastest times after Bolt earlier this year, have tested positive.

Isn’t it odd the cloak-and-dagger way we all talk about it? We want it to be true, but we know that it’s possibly not true?
Yeah, we all wish and we all dream, we all impose our own thoughts and whatever onto these people. They are a projected version of us and when it’s all peeled away, we’re really quite damming because we want them to be perfect. Nobody’s perfect. And when they have flaws that means, Oh my God, ‘maybe we have flaws? But we believed in you. That’s terrible.’

Maybe we should all just take a look at ourselves and work out why we worship these people? Just let them get on with it. Someone said during the course of the film, and I really wish it had made it into the film, that this whole thing ‘is just entertainment.’ It’s just entertainment. Don’t take it too seriously.

Supermodels may be beautiful and tall but they are still photoshopped.
Exactly. Some people may not fill in their tax form correctly. It happens. That’s humans.

Daniel Gordon’s documentary 9.79* is out in cinemas and on DVD now.