Danny Harris competing at the 1990 Athens Grand Prix. MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT

The ’80s and ’90s were a golden age for the world of sports. A period of time when the now-legends of the past graced fields, courts, and tracks to show the world who was truly the greatest. Rarely, however, do we analyze the downfalls of that era. Crossing the Line examines the life of Danny Harris, exploring those downfalls through the themes of drugs, excess, and redemption.

While Harris acts as the film’s protagonist, it is the high sensation of fame and competition that is truly the main character. The film boldly paints a picture of a young man from a rough neighbourhood and his gift for track and field. It is this gift that led him to the Olympics at the age of 18.

Subsequent to his rise to fame, however, Harris discovered cocaine. The most startling aspect of the documentary is not Harris’ drug addiction, but the complicity of his coaches and fellow athletes. Although many close to Harris knew the hurdler was struggling with drug addiction, the fact that he continued to win championships inhibited them from intervening. The reasoning seemed to be that if he was number one in the world, why would someone intervene? Harris must have been doing something right.

The film is a testimony to the importance of mental health awareness for athletes and illuminates the disregard for their mental and professional wellbeing. Harris’ case illustrates that if you’re only encouraged to exercise your physical capabilities, you will expire. Mentally, Harris was unable to bear the pressure of loss. Coupled with his difficult childhood, this caused a slow collapse.

It is sometimes wondered whether athletes should be required to acquire a higher education to compete. Harris’ story illustrates that higher education is vital to the well-being of an athlete. Many athletes interviewed in the film describe the hopelessness they felt after leaving their athletic careers behind. Often with few marketable skills, many became shadows of their former selves. Many came from underprivileged backgrounds and were raised without preparation for alternate career paths.

Some may argue that it is not the responsibility of the sports industry to consider these concerns — but the consequences of withdrawing support from an athlete can be vast and severe.

Profiting off the ability of a human being while disregarding their humanity can be oppressive. This has a tendency to set athletes up for failure. Society often looks down upon troubled athletes like Lamar Odom and Tiger Woods, who publicly fall from grace, but rarely is there much thought to the cause of their demise to begin with.

The greatest lesson from Crossing the Line is that in professional athletics, there is a thin line between sanity and insanity. From the desire to win to the fear of failure, when an athlete enters the professional world, there are few safe havens. Although the track and field profession garnered many fans as a result of stars like Harris, its inability to support those stars exposed a disconnect. The easy solution is to blame the athletes, but the harder solution is to rethink the way we see the sports industry and how we treat the mental and professional health of these athletes.

Crossing the Line premieres as a part of the Canadian Sport Film Festival at the TIFF Lightbox on Sunday, June 11. Student tickets are $11.50.

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