ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series has been mostly terrific, and exceptionally good at drilling down into personal stories that also illustrate something larger about the nature and state of sports.
So there’s a touch of irony in noting its latest — “9.79,” about sprinter Ben Johnson’s record-setting 100-meter time in the 1988 Olympics, which was later invalidated because he used performance-enhancing drugs — is interesting, but also a little flabby and slow-going. (The doc premieres at 8 p.m. ET on Oct. 9.)
Filmmaker Daniel Gordon certainly leaves no stone unturned in exploring Johnson’s case, and the widespread use of drugs by athletes in the 1980s. Part of that includes interviewing everyone who took part in the race as wekk as those involved in its aftermath, from the other sprinters to coaches and drug testing authorities.
Yet the conclusions reached — that Johnson was vilified even though he was hardly alone in bending or breaking the rules — hardly comes as a news flash. Nor is it much of a breakthrough to realize athletes cheat because they desperately want to win and the rewards — both then and now — make the risk worth the gamble.
The truth is everything here could just as easily be applied to those who skirt NCAA guidelines in recruiting, braving serious repercussions because jobs and careers can be made by landing prime talent; or athletes in other sports, including baseball and football, who have been caught “juicing.”
Given how spectacular Johnson’s feat was — and the drama that surrounded his ongoing duel with Olympic champion Carl Lewis, who is also extensively interviewed — “9.79” certainly stirs memories. But at roughly 80 minutes sans commercials, there’s simply too much that tells those who have followed tawdry sports headlines about athletes cheating to gain competiive advantage what we already know.
However valid the point, in other words, it could have been made faster. Maybe what Gordon really needed was a performance-enhancing editor.