9.79 – W.R. – REALLY ?

I hate going back over stuff ! I hate seeing things a second time. I lost points on school work because I refused to review my answers. As a boy, the only movie I could bear to see more than once was, SAHARA, a war film in the 1940s starring Humphrey Bogart. I liked it  because there were NO women in it,….. and a black guy was. One of the current exceptions is  THE PELICAN BRIEF. NOW I watch it  every opportunity I can because there IS a woman ( Julia Roberts ) in it,…… and it also has a black guy ( Denzel Washington ) in it as well. Still there is that lingering reluctance to go back and review things. The reason I bring all this up is because I have seen ESPN’s 30/30 documentary film, 9.79 several times and have asked my wife to record it so I can reference it some more. This is a piece of  journalism that defies complete comprehension and appreciation on the first viewing. It impacts and impresses on several levels, and like most good art form, more is revealed with each in-depth reviewing. The thing works at every level it pulls back the shroud and cloak that usually clouds published efforts about drugs in track and field. For example, it makes the point that people who take Human Growth Hormone ( HGH ), often have to mitigate against one of the counter indications of its (ab)use by using braces to keep their teeth from a simian-type protrusion. Then Carl Lewis is shown decrying and being critical of drug use and cheats,…… while showing his teeth in braces, where previously there were none .   Dr Caitlin, whose lab was one of only two certified to drug test on this continent in 1984, coyly admits that some of  his lab results of tainted famous athletes were “lost” during the 1984 Olympics. We have a pretty good idea who   he is making reference about. Then there is the Canadian, Dick Pound, the high ranking IOC and WADA  personage . Pretending that he first knew about drugs being used by Canadian athletes when Charlie Francis talks to him the night that Ben got busted. Pound states, ” ….it was no longer WHETHER but WHAT…” drugs were in play in the Ben Johnson case. The fact of the matter is that it was commonly circulated and known in Canadian athletic circles that Charlie Francis was encouraging athletes in his training group to take drugs.  He and people like Chuck Debus from the U.S. regularly met overseas at the major meets to discuss dosages, clearance cycles, and tips for maximizing drug influenced results. During the late 70s and early 80s there were two sprint Angelas in Canada. One was Angela Taylor who at the Dubin hearings openly and candidly  testified to taking drugs. The other Angela and her coach made it known long before the Ben Johnson bust that Charlie’s group was using drugs. The Canadian sports hierarchy, starting with Gerard Mach, who was brought in from Poland to upgrade Canada’s track and field performances,  simply chose to look the other way. Dick Pound who was constantly  going public with criticism about what he thought about drug use in the U.S. and elsewhere, acted as if he didn’t know what everyone else in Canada track and field most certainly knew.

In today’s NEW YORK TIMES there is a piece about whether or not the International Cycling Union will take away all of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France victories in the face of his recent  USADA ban. The quandary they find themselves in is that  6 of next 7 finishers behind Armstrong have all had performance enhancement issues. So there is literally no one else to give the victory to. There is a parallel here with the 1988 men’s 100 meter results. Of the 8 finishers in the race, ESPN makes the case that only two seem to escape suspicion. Who should they have given the 1988 medals to ?

All of the above might make for some interesting reading and gossip, but that is not the real value and worth I see in the ESPN 9.79 program. Let’s go back to 1988 for a minute. Several weeks before the Olympic Games, Carl Lewis beat Ben Johnson at 100 meters in the Weltklasse Meet in Zurich. This was the first time Carl had beaten Ben in approximately three years.  Supposedly, one scenario has it, that it was this defeat that caused Ben to panic and caused him to take additional drugs that did not have time to clear his system . The salient point here for me is that the time Carl ran to beat Ben in Zurich before the 1988 Olympics,…. 20 sprinters worldwide ran a time faster than that THIS year. The state of Florida in the last 5 years has produced two high school sprinters  who challenge  the time that supposedly sent Ben into frenzy to “get right”. It should also be noted that Ben admits to taking drugs in general, but claims that a very close personal friend and confidant of Carl’s “spiked” the liquid he used to induce test samples. The person in question is shown clearly where he should not have been,….. in the doping control room. He neither admits or denies Ben’s charges, but that is not the critical point I seek to make. The point is that the time Carl ran to beat Ben in Zurich is almost pedestrian and borders on ordinary by today’s standards.

In 1988 Ben Johnson shocked the world by running 9.79 in the Olympic final. This time made him briefly the toast of athletics with headlines and accolades coming from every where, including the prime minister of this country. The excitement and electricity he generated was universally accepted as being superhuman and beyond all imagination. The world record he broke was 9.84 . In 2012 Justin Gatlin ran 9.79  and was 3rd at the Olympic Games and this garnered, at best,  polite and grudging respect. In 2006 Justin was the world record holder in the 100 meters. He lost the record to a drug charge. I predicted in 2011 that in 2012 he would equal the time he achieved in 2006. I missed by a couple hundredths of a seconds of being correct. The reason I was confident that Justin would equal his world record time of 2006, was the fact that by 2012,  that 2006 time was basically obsolete as a truly elite time. Since then, at least three people have run faster than the 2006 time.

This brings me to the point I want to make and is, for me, the underlying and on-going significance for coaches and athletes of the ESPN 9.79 piece. The real definition of the world record should be, ” It is what one or two do now, that many will do later.” There are a number of sprinters who have exceeded the 9.84 “world record” that Ben so dramatically broke. There are several who have exceeded the stupendous and unthinkable “world record” 9.79 that Ben set. The current record is 9.58, and is as unthinkable and impressive as Ben’s 9.79 was in 1988. I personally think it is a performance achieved without banned substances. But that is not the point. At one time a sprinter who ran under 10 flat was a drug suspect. Now it is almost ordinary, even for clean sprinters. The point has been made that drug suspicion shadows 6 of 8 sprinters in 1988. But a bigger point is that the times those athletes ran to get to that final are now achievable without drugs. The time that Usain Bolt has put up will ultimately fall to other clean athletes. Let me see if I can make the point another way. The famous black comedienne, Moms Mabley, once said about men she preferred, ” The only thing an OLD man can do for me is to show me where a YOUNG man is !”.    My point is that at the time a “world record” is set it is already suffering from a mild case of obsolescence  and age, and in time will become almost obsolete. The times that made the big fuss and stink in 1988 do not have nearly the same weight or status today. So as coaches and athletes, we need to view “world records” not as definitions and destinations, but as indicators as to where and how far we still have to go. That is the message and underlying value of the fabulous ESPN 9.79 for me and I will be reminded of it every time I view again.

Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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