NINE-SEVEN-NINE! / Knockout!

I was quite thrilled when ESPN decided to renew its 30 For 30 series.* The first installment offered a lot of illumination on some oftentimes told and other times not-as-often told stories from the world of sports folklore. The second film in the second series is a particularly salient one for me as a sports fan.

*Although I’m bit puzzled at how one keeps the name when the 30th anniversary of ESPN is long gone and we’re past 30 films…why not just call it “The ESPN Films Series?” Also the whole ”what if I told you” ad campaign strikes me as a bit inane as the question always seems to pose as a grand philosophical query yet usually precedes something of faux profoundness.

9.79* revisits the most famous 100 metre dash in history– possibly one of the five most famous events ever in Olympic history– that occurred at the 1988 Olympics.

Atlanta remains un-united

This is salient because it was the first Summer Olympics I ever watched. Thus I watched the Ben Johnson scandal through the eyes of a naïve Canadian fanboy, for lack of a better way of putting it. 24+ years later, the ever-developing nuances of the story fascinate me far more than the original 10 seconds of drama ever could have. One race encapuslated debates on race, social class, masculinity, our concepts of “fair play” and how to reconcile them with the ethic of “doing whatever it takes.” Some of these issues are explored and other not even touched on in the film, even though as a whole it just reminds me of all of it all over again.

One of my big takeaways was how the scandal introduced me to an ugly form of Canadian racism that I was even able to spot as that naïve 11 year old who stayed up past midnight to watch the race. The media seemed keen to celebrate Johnson’s “Canadian-ness” as a gold medal winner yet played up his Jamaican roots much more once he was caught (do a pre-88 and post-88 “Jamaican born Ben Johnson” LexisNexis search and see what I mean). The culture of racing is, of course, extremely important in Jamaica and the movie notes that Johnson wasn’t even the only island-born Canadian at the line that day and how Canada represented a journey to a better life to facilitate racing success, not ultimately hinder it.

The issue of ”othering” is fascinating as its rationalization process is so often incredibly contradictory. Barack Obama encounters this even to this day with some people stubbornly clinging to the theory that he was not born in America, even though if such allegations were true, it would shed far more light on something wrong with America’s inability to find it out if he got away with it for so long. Just the same, the documentary reveals how Johnson and a host of other black athletes were part of a doping system that was supervised and overseen by middle-class white coaches. The most notable being Charlie Francis, to whom the furor of disappointment never reached nearly the same level as it did Johnson.**

**And even despite publicly claiming that he didn’t believe one could win on an Olympic level without resorting to drugs, Francis still managed to carve an assocation with American sprinters such as former “30″ subject Marion Jones, who later also was found to have doped with the spotlight firmly tilted away from Francis or any of her other coaches.

It seems like Johnson being an exotic “other” was convenient when it shed negative light on Canada, just as Obama being a foreign “other” was/is convenient to those who disagreed with his politics. This is also particularly relevant at a time when Lance Armstrong has decided to recede from his fight against numerous doping allegations. Lance is not only not an “other,” he’s a sympathetic “non-other” as a cancer survivor. Hence it seems the vitirol one might expect towards him hasn’t surfaced.

9.79* does take a pass on other issues raised by the furor. Such as the ongoing debate on why Carl Lewis was never an incredibly popular man. The doc reminds us of Lewis rubbing his fellow competitors the wrong way and gives quite enough of him to indicate why that might be (anyone who claims to go to college to “get a degree in Carl Lewis” is probably possessed of an unhealthy amount of hubris***). As a young kid, I thought that hating Carl Lewis was something that a Canadian sports fan did since he was the archrival of our hero and Canada always naturally takes to any athletic rivalry with America (far more naturally than the States’ sports fans take to it, frankly). Of course, I didn’t have as much access to the media then to know that Lewis wasn’t exactly universally loved at home either.

Was it solely his expression of confidence (or arrogance) or was it something more? As early as the mid-80s, rumors of homosexuality followed Lewis around and it’s entirely possible that some of the dislike for Carl stemmed from the fact that he dared to be one of the greatest athletes of all time without looking or acting like a “real man” should. Some of Lewis’ responses– ”I’m no homosexual”– were as troublesome as the rumors. Not because Lewis failed to out himself or because he is indeed straight, but rather that he didn’t instead use the opportunity to open a dialogue as to why it would be so threatening if he was in the first place.

*** It’s worth noting that Calvin Smith, free of any shadowy drug history, seemed to fade in public consciousness despite presenting a far more humble image than Lewis. Yet if you watch the film, you’ll notice that he also comes across as somewhat effeminate, perhaps lending credence to the “gotta be macho” theory.

The most important reason to watch the film is to peek into the continued rationale and/or denial of athletes surrounding drug use as it raises the all-important question ”why do certain actions constitute cheating but others do not?” Six of the eight athletes in the race failed a drug point at least once in their careers, but some tests are deemed to be less significant than others. Johnson is positioned as a “truth will set you free” character free to rationalize his drug use rather than deny it because he’s already been caught (or possibly not: Johnson maintains that what he actually tested positive for was something he didn’t use, and the movie explores the espionage accusations behind that as well). The movie opens with the anonymous quote that echoes Johnson’s logic, “if you don’t take it, you won’t make it.”

It’s a riveting story and shows promise for the 30 series after a somewhat underwhelming re-debut (the very important but scattershot ”Broke”) and a potentially self-indulgent followup.

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It’s fascinating to compare a municipal debate to a national one and, for me at least, a Canadian one to an American one.

In my hometown, there’s a race for the mayor’s office. Several media outlets collaborated to host a debate between most of the candidates. Listening to the candidates answer debate questions, occasionally making small-town humour and taking a little extra time to properly phrase an answer to a question, makes me think “wow, these people would be eviscerated on a national stage.”

That’s not a dismissal of them. Quite the contrary. It’s a dismissal of decades of national debates being turned into a quest to find out when people stammer or when a “knockout moment” happens.

After a strong post-debate tilt in the polls for U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, his VP candidate Paul Ryan is apparently ”prepping for a big knockout moment” tonight in his debate with Joe Biden. Whenever I read headlines like this, I’m inclined to cringe. Not because I’m anti-debate but rather because the purpose of debates continues to be twisted into a quest for a “knockout” or a “gaffe” rather than advancing any serious discussion on an issue.

There are two particularly discouraging things about this. The most discouraging is that scribes usually proclaim or discern “knockout moments” out of items not nearly possessed of the substance that they seem to be, especially in American politics. Usually, a “knockout moment,” for me, is where policy debate goes to die. For example, when Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter’s medicare concerns with the pithy ”there you go again,” it received more focus than any substantive response to Carter’s response that Reagan offered. Logically speaking, “there you go again” made Carter look like a nag, but it didn’t really answer his question either. Just the same, when Lloyd Bentsen chastised Dan Quayle for being ”no Jack Kennedy,” it resonated as a great putdown, but generated more attention than any purported substance within the criticism.

The search for the ever-occurring gaffe can equally inane. Michael Dukasis’ expressed opposition to the death penalty was criticized for its lack of passion, as though the specifics of the opinion (that he felt such a penalty wouldn’t act as a deterrent) were irrelevant. Hence, it qualified as a “gaffe.” A more recent example is Rick Perry’s failure to remember the name of the Department of Energy in a Republican primary debate. It elicited great laughter, but it left any potential discussion about his plans to eliminate three departments completely in the dust.

The second reason why the “knockout quest” is so frustrating is that it’s debatable how far these moments really sway things in American elections. Take Romney’s current post-debate push: was there any one defining moment that sealed it? Likely not, it’s generally conceded Obama performed poorly in the debate overall rather than failing in any key moment. Looking at the some of the aforementioned examples, Reagan won the 1980 election by a landslide, Bush’s win over Dukasis was a fairly comfortable one; it’s hard to take away from either of those elections that one should look for such moments.

Atlanta remains un-united
Everyone remembers Bentsen’s putdown, but it ultimately didn’t help Dukasis

Yet that’s all we hear presidential candidates do: meet with their debate coaches (a good thing) and come armed to the tee with the right catchphrases to have their moment (not as good). If 1/4 of the enery was expended on how to produce a productive discussion on issues that there is expended on the knockout quest, Americans could be treated to something of major importance. It’s alarming how much less combative and more illuminating a third-party presidential debate is yet it attracts so little of the audience.

The “knockout” is perhaps a little more relevant in Canadian politics where the margin of victory actually counts for something, unlike a presidential debate. You can win by one electoral vote or by 200 electoral votes: at the end of the day, you’re still president. In a parliamentary system, the “knockout moment” could be the difference between a majority or minority government or opposition vs. backbench. ”You had an option” isn’t such an incredibly riveting moment because it won the Conservatives an election all by itself. It’s riveting because it turned a potential minority government or small majority into 211 seats. Everyone knew last year that Stephen Harper would still be Prime Minister after the election, but Jack Layton’s stern riposte of Michael Ignatieff and Ignatieff’s arrogance in the face of Layton’s criticisms is what likely helped tip it into majority terrority (as the NDP played spoiler to any fading Liberal hopes in Ontario) and place the opposition mantle firmly in the NDP’s hands for the first time.

However, regardless of whether the knockout works or not, I’d love to see a “postgame” report that focused on the feasibility of ideas presented, alternatives not considered and less focus on “how did Candidate X do?” I won’t hold my breath.

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