Ben Johnson doc “9.79*” and the 1988 controversy

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After witnessing Usain Bolt run 9.58, 9.63, and 9.69 in the 100m, and seeing six other men dip below the 9.80 mark since Beijing four years ago, it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember a time when just breaking 10 seconds was an incredible feat.

But before the 1988 Seoul Games, 9.83 was the benchmark, set by Canadian specimen Ben Johnson who pumped his imposing frame to victory at the ’87 world championships in Rome. A year later, convicted of doping and stripped of his gold medal, he was made an example and a pariah by the IOC.

Johnson’s story is told in the documentary “9.79*,” premiering Tuesday at 8pm EDT on ESPN.  But the film is really the story of two men: Johnson and American hero Carl Lewis, both of whom – the film hints – used every bit of human will and scientific assistance to fight for the title of “worlds fastest man.”

And while it’s Johnson and his performance-enhanced 9.79 that are once again clearly under the microscope, it’s Lewis’s bitter protest, even as he now holds the event’s gold medal nearly 25 years later, that stands out in stark contrast to Johnson’s blunt honesty. After all, Johnson has nothing more to hide.

Director Daniel Gordon does an excellent job of putting both facts and rumors on the table and letting the two men speak for themselves. Then he adds the important context by interviewing doctors, coaches, managers, IOC lab techs, and the other six finalists from the ’88 race, and puts together a Ken-Burns-esque documentary that is arguably the best, most cinematic of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ series to date.

After all is said, Gordon, neither prosecutor nor defender, leaves us to be the jury. We’ll never know if Lewis doped or if Johnson was sabotoged, but we can lean with help from the film, which details how Lewis tested positive for three stimulants at the ’88 U.S. Trials before the USOC deemed it an “inadvertent positive.”

For now, Lewis lives on in the record books as track’s most decorated Olympian. Johnson is just a cheater. We know it’s an accurate tag, but we’re not sure it’s one he should wear alone.

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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