Racing back to Olympic controversy

FILM PRODUCER DANIEL GORDON  Producer Daniel Gordon of VeryMuchSo Productions, Sheffield.            13 July 2004

FILM PRODUCER DANIEL GORDON Producer Daniel Gordon of VeryMuchSo Productions, Sheffield. 13 July 2004

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One locally-based film-maker featured in this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest is Daniel Gordon whose 9.79 tells the story of the controversial 100 metres final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

It is remembered for the scandal of the winner, Ben Johnson, being stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for drugs.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (third from left) wins the final of the 100 Metres event at Seoul Olympic Stadium during the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, 24th September 1988. Johnson won the event in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, but was disqualified for doping, with Carl Lewis (far right) of the USA, taking the title. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (third from left) wins the final of the 100 Metres event at Seoul Olympic Stadium during the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, 24th September 1988. Johnson won the event in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, but was disqualified for doping, with Carl Lewis (far right) of the USA, taking the title. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

But that was not what drew Gordon, who has previously made a trio of documentaries on North Korea and made the official FIFA film of World Cup final day in 2010, to the subject.

It was the fact that it was a race in which four competitors ran under 10 seconds which had never been happened before.

“I remember watching it - I would have been around 15½ - and thinking it was amazing. Then came the revelation ( Johnson’s drug cheating) which I didn’t quite understand.”

Once the initial scandal blew over there was not a lot of coverage in Britain, he says, especially as the inquiry was in Canada,

“When I researched it I realised there were eight individuals with stories to tell - each of the finalists - and I knew I had to get all eight or there wasn’t a film,” he continues.

“At the start I got a tentative OK from Ben Johnson but I knew he had been interviewed before. I thought Carl Lewis (the US favourite who finished second) might be slightly more troublesome. For the last World Cup I had interviewed everyone who had ever scored in a World Cup final.

“I thought if I managed all 34 for that, how hard would eight be.”

Getting finance for the project was a different matter. “Two years ago I pitched the idea at the Doc/Fest Meet Market and got a couple of minor money pledge but nothing definite,” he says. “The big people didn’t seem to quite get it.”

With the 2012 Olympics fast approaching, he decided to push ahead himself, interviewing fifth-placed Robson da Silva while he was in Brazil for the World Cup scorers film and then went to Canada and got Ben Johsnon in the bag.

By this time he had interest from the BBC and ESPN and on the strength of that was able to travel across the USA, not only filming athletes but coaches, doctors, drugs experts and others who could shed light on the issue.

“The last man standing was Linford Christie (the British medal-winner) and he finally agreed to be interviewed last May.

It premiered in Toronto - after the 2012 Olympics but Gordon doesn’t think that mattered, believing that if a story is strong enough it doesn’t need to be linked to anything.

“Weirdly, though, it was shown in America just as the Lance Armstrong story had broken and it was seen as a drugs based film, asking why people would go down that road,” continues Gordon.

So how did Ben Johnson come across? “We got him at a good time, when I think he was more reflective,” suggests Gordon.

“Ten years after he is even more bitter about how he was treated. He is convinced he was set up and was not the only one.

“And six of the eight runners have subsequently had some sort of issue with drugs at some time in their career.”

Another recommendation for 9.79, according to the film-maker, is that it contains great archive footage. “It brought back memories of some of those great nights of athletics,” he says.

“You realise how this group of athletes have great respect for each other. Dennis Mitchell was very reticient and hates the media but as soon as he started talking you could see his eyes light up.”

9.79 has been shown on ESPN in America and there will be limited cinematic release in the UK before the BBC screens it once rights issues about archive footage have been sorted dout.

Gordon, whose Verymuchso Productions is based in Sheffield, is now working on a flm about the Hillsborough disaster. Surely there can’t be scope for another on the subject?

“I really think that no one has yet got to the nub of the story,” insists Gordon.

“For me, it is a personal journey and I am talking to a whole cross section of people whose stories have never been told. “

9.79 is being shown at the Library Theatre on Thursday, June 13, and then at the Howard Street open-air screenings on Friday.