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Ben Johnson revisited on "30 for 30"

Competitors taking part in the final of the

Competitors taking part in the final of the 100-Meter Sprint Race at the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 1988. Including: Dennis Mitchell, USA; Desai Williams, Canada; Ben Johnson, Canada; Calvin Smith, USA; Linford Christie, Great Britain; Carl Lewis, USA. Credit: AP

Next up in ESPN's consistently compelling "30 for 30" documentary series: "9.79*," which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

In it Daniel Gordon looks back at the men's 100-meter final at the Seoul Games of 1988, and the subsequent stripping of Ben Johnson's gold medal and world record.

The film includes interviews with Johnson, Carl Lewis and their fellow finalists that year. Stick with it, because it only is the final half hour that Gordon peels back the layers of the story to reveal a more complex tale than it first appeared.

Speaking of Johnson's failed drug test in Seoul, his return to North America from South Korea remains the single strangest day of my long and illustrious sportswriting career.

I was assigned to meet his plane at LaGuardia, which I did, along with many other journalists.

I then was assigned to follow him to JFK for his flight home to Canada, which I did, along with many other journalists.

At JFK we weren't sure whether he was going home to suburban Toronto or first flying to Montreal. The two departing gates were next to each other, and the flight times were within a few minutes of each other.

Some reporters guessed one, some the other.

I followed most of the Canadian journalists and guessed Toronto and had no idea whether I was right until I was seated and the plane was about to pull away from the gate.

At the last possible minute, Johnson came on board, accompanied by security guards, and sat in the front row.

When we arrived in Toronto, the customs agent inquired as to my purpose in visiting Canada.

"I'm following Ben Johnson," I said.

"How long do you expect to be here?" he said.

"I'm not sure; maybe 10 or 15 minutes," I said.

Anyway, Johnson eventually deplaned, creating one more chaotic scrum of journalists, as can be seen in "9.79*." I was there in the crowd somewhere, but I couldn't spot my much younger self, unlike in last week's "30 for 30," in which I could be seen interviewing Jamal Mashburn in 1993.

Soon a car was taking Johnson away toward his home in Scarborough. I called the office and asked whether the editors wanted me to keep following Johnson.

I was told to come home, which required another bizarre conversation, this time with an American customs officer.

By 8 p.m. that evening I was back in our office in Queens writing my story after a round trip to Canada on which I didn't take so much as a toothbrush.

Beats selling insurance for a living, I suppose.

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