Long before the cases of Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and Marion Jones engendered public indifference about performance-enhancing drugs, steroids were a dirty little secret of the sports world. Suspicions were prevalent in Olympic circles, but rarely discussed above a whisper. That changed in 1988 when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was busted for the anabolic steroid stanozolol days after winning the gold medal and setting a world record in the 100-meter dash at the Seoul Olympics. His spectacular rise to the top of his sport and his cataclysmic fall are chronicled in 9.79*, this week's entry in ESPN's Emmy-nominated documentary series 30 for 30 (Tuesdays, 8/7c).
The title of the film refers to the stunning world record Johnson set in Seoul, a mark that left his closest competitor, defending Olympic champion Carl Lewis, in another proverbial time zone. (Lewis' time of 9.92 became the new Olympic record following Johnson's disqualification.) Johnson, Lewis and the six other men who ran the race were all interviewed by director Daniel Gordon, providing a fascinating range of perspectives on the event itself and the culture of drug use in sports at the time. "The people coming to meets, they want to be entertained, they want to see fast times," Johnson laments in the film of his decision to start taking steroids. "They don't care how you get there."
Gordon pulls back the curtain on conspiracies that were part of a well-oiled machine that desperately tried to preserve the integrity of the sport, the Olympic equivalent of "don't ask, don't tell." In fact, of the eight finalists in the Seoul 100, only Calvin Smith of the United States and Brazil's Robson Da Silva did not at some point in their careers have a drug-related blemish on their record. Even nine-time Olympic gold medalist Lewis, traditionally considered a model sportsman, has his innocence questioned in the film. (Never more jarringly when he's shown in archival footage with orthodontic braces not long after we're told that human growth hormone causes the jaw to grow out and that "mature adult athletes wearing braces on their teeth became stigmatum of growth hormone use" in the '80s.)
"Athletes can see everything that's going on and they know more than the public will ever know," Smith says of the behind-the-scenes cover-ups that were prevalent prior to the Seoul Games. 9.79* now gives a pretty good look not only at how rampant steroid use has been, but also why many athletes chose the path.