I tend to write to talk out my thoughts, but this was a time where I needed to talk before writing my thoughts. To that end, a snippit of a phone conversation.
“Do you think Carl Lewis used Performance Enhancing Drugs?”
me: “Absolutely yes.”
His case was based on physiques – Lewis looked like a world class sprinter, Ben Johnson looked like muscle monster – and Johnson’s sudden surprising rise. If they were both using stuff, Lewis should’ve been blowing Johnson away, not waching in shock as Johnson flew past him.
My case was partially informed by what came the day after – 11 people testifying Lance Armstrong was using. It’s tough to believe the top guy isn’t using when everyone chasing him did. It was also partially informed by the discussion on the associated Simmons/Gladwell podcast, where two dots in the movie – “HGH creates changes in the jaw require braces for those in their mid-20s” and “Carl Lewis, wearing braces” – were connected for me even before I saw it myself. Mostly, it’s that I’ve followed sports and psuedo-sports where PED usage is rampant, where the performance gain may be there but the Hulk-like physiques are not always, and my benefit of the doubt have been exhausted.
(FWIW, he believes the Jamaicans probably are on something, but more so Yohan Blake than Bolt.)
The unresolved question about Lewis is where the documentary leaves you, and it’s not really where I expected to be stepping off. It’s track, there’s always that question, but the first 3/4ths of the movie is more about Ben Johnson and Canada’s track team’s path to that race in Seoul and the ensuing fall out. It’s an interesting examination about how far a country – but just a person, but the sporting resources of a motivated nation – will go to achieve gold.
That story gets told, but it also gets flipped on it’s head in the last stretch: most of the others in the race are shown to have committed similar crimes and the US team more or less admits to spiking Johnson’s test results to trigger a positive. (“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t” is the greatest non-denial denial ever.) I wouldn’t mind watching a lot of 30 for 30s again, but twist at the end made me want to see again immediately, just to rewatch in the totally different context presented by the end of the movie.
The exact end of the movie, with the drug tester pointing out they got the guy, so job done, kind of fell flat unless it was supposed to be ironic. If we’re to believe the story Johnson tells, his drink had been spiked for months and he hadn’t been caught, and the actual substances he was using were never caught. (Going back, Johnson’s doctor shocked reaction to the drug he tested positive for suggests it was the spiked drug that was caught, not whatever he was actually on.) Johnson was using whatever he was using regularly from the time he started to challenge Lewis, and he was only caught the last time. Drug testing failed dozens of times, and only got a win with help.
If you want stretch, Johnson being caught may be have been a determent to the PED fighting culture; it surely scared people of for a time, but it probably also convinced drug testers that they were closer to stopping the problem than they actually were. It’s like someone playing on slot machines who finally hits on a winning set after losing 40 times, forget they’ve lost each time, finally gets a winning combination, and thinks what they’re doing is working. I’m not saying down with drug testing, but to put any praise towards it based on Ben Johnson being caught would be missing the big picture.
It’s 25 years later and not a lot has really changed. When the female sprinter explained how they wouldn’t use the drugs in competition, just in training, and stop in time for it to get out of their system before testing, I thought about how many times Dave Meltzer has explained the same technique being used by MMA fighters today. The drug testers know it too, it’s a nut they can’t crack without doing more testing.
9.78* was entertaining and gave you something to think about after the fact. It’s one of the better ones they’ve done. I’m not so convinced next week’s will be that way – in fact, I’ve looked at the description and figured I probably wouldn’t bother if I wasn’t challenging myself to be a completest – but it might surprise me. This one did.