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Akron Olympic gold medalist Butch Reynolds' ‘False Positive’ story premieres at CIFF

Akron runner Butch Reynolds
"False Positive"
Akron runner Butch Reynolds and his performance at the 1988 Summer Olympics are explored in the ESPN documentary "False Positive," premiering at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Akron has produced its share of record-breaking athletes. One of them, Butch Reynolds, gets his due in the new film “False Positive.” The ESPN “30 For 30” documentary premieres Saturday at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

It tells the story of what happened after Reynolds broke the world record in the 400 meters just before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He won two medals at the games, but he was then banned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation over alleged steroid use.

“It was a tragedy in my life,” he said from his current home near Columbus. “It was no celebration in that time of my life. After the accusation, I found myself praying a lot more than I did before. Never thought that I'd be tested the way I had to be tested in that process.”

He launched a legal fight to clear his name and compete in 1992. The move was blocked by the IAAF, today known as World Athletics. The Hoban graduate later won a libel suit against the organization, but it refused to recognize the judgement and further litigation stalled. Reynolds was initially hesitant to relive the story for “False Positive.”

“A lot can happen in 34 years,” he said. “One bad decision… that's when you start going to jail and start doing drugs and start doing things out of the mindset.”

Reynolds said he stayed strong and cited the examples of athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens. Decades after the Olympics, he rarely spoke about what happened. Yet he found an inquisitive soul in Ismail Al-Amin.

“I remember where I was at in 1988,” Al-Amin said. “Watching Butch run. I was fixated.”

In the early 2000s, the Buchtel High School grad was working for Reynolds’ youth-mentoring nonprofit. Out of curiosity, he started researching the IAAF controversy. It had come at the same time as a doping scandal involving Canada’s Ben Johnson, a sprinter who was stripped of his medals after the 1988 Olympics.

“I think there was a lot of public speculation that the sport of track and field was just dirty in general,” Al-Amin said. “Honestly, I didn't really know if Butch was a guilty athlete or not.”

Eventually, he said there was enough “ambiguity… and a lot of inconsistencies” to create “a hell of a story.” Al-Amin was ready to pivot from education to filmmaking, and he contacted his former college roommate, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young. That led to meetings with ESPN. The result is 102 minutes, in which Reynolds hopes viewers get a sense of what he went through.

“It's been 34 years, and I have not been exonerated from the world governing body of track and field,” he said. “I think it should be on their books that I am not a drug user. I'm not a guilty athlete.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.