The joke up north is that sprinter Ben Johnson was a Canadian until the doping charges, at which point he became a Jamaican. But what this vibrant, informative track-and-field-and-drugs docu more than implies is that hypocrisy was as rampant as outrage when the world’s fastest human was caught using performance-enhancing substances at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. ESPN involvement will provide worthy exposure for a film that’s not just exciting and briskly paced but topical, especially given the Lance Armstrong scandal, and that suggests a reappraisal of the entire issue of steroid abuse is in order.
Helmer Daniel Gordon sets up what’s described as “the greatest 100 meters the world has ever seen” with suitable tension, then cuts back to tell the story of the Ali Frazier-like rivalry between the unsung Johnson and the flamboyant Carl Lewis, revealing the use of drugs by a number of international runners. “9.79*” makes the viewer a fully informed participant in the climactic race, in which Johnson set a record that was almost immediately thrown out. The honesty of the interviews is remarkable, the use of music effective and the issues ever controversial.