Icarus: Reviewed


Icarus is an Academy Award Nominated Documentary that has already won the Critics’ Choice Best Documentary. The documentary takes on the issue of athletic doping, most specifically the international doping scene and Russia. The documentary can be divided into two parts. The first part takes place for most of the first hour of this 2-hour documentary. The first half looks at doping and athletes that dope.

Bryan Fogel
Bryan Fogel, the director, producer and main actor in the documentary. 

The director and producer of the show, Bryan Fogel, is an amateur cyclist. He competes in the Haute Route. The Haute Route is the most grueling cycling race in the world. After finishing twelfth he chose to use PED’s to increase his chances in the next years race. He is hooked up with Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian scientist who helps him test clean while taking steroids.

This first part of the movie looks at what it takes not only to be a top-level athlete but how much extra effort cheating takes. It is not like these cheating athletes take steroids and then skip some workouts. No, these guys are training as hard as all the clean athletes. Their whole life, from their diet to their sleeping habits to their training is top of the line. There is no dip because of the enhancements.

After doing a whole regiment of steroids he ends up finishing way below his clean level performance the year before. Fogel says he felt stronger and able to more quickly recover. But still, the results did not prove using PEDs was successful. Another interesting point to be considered with the questions around doping is how much do the PED have to do with success or failure? This conversation comes up a lot with Lance Armstrong. If all the cyclist were doping does that make the playing field still even and Armstrong still at the top? Or is who he is as an athlete what made him great? Or is it the drugs? These are uncomfortable questions the first half of this documentary brought up.

The second half of the show is much more intense. For all of a sudden, Bryan Fogel is wrapped up in an international doping scandal of historic proportions. Grigor Rodchenkov, the Russian he was put in contact with to help with his doping, turns out the be the orchestrater of a mass doping cover-up for the Russian government. Rodchenkov says, “There never was an Anti-Doping in Russia”. Through this documentary they discuss how Rodchenkov came to have the job and where his life and family now lie after going public and what the International sporting world is doing in light of evidence of mass cheating.

Grigor Rodchenkov
Grigor Rodchenkov, the head of the WADA Laboratory in Russia.

Rodchenkov was a Russian runner in his youth. He talks, in the documentary, of learning about doping when runners he was beating just a season prior began to beat him. He says his mother began injecting him with the steroids to keep him competitive. Although he never made the national stage, while running for his University he studied in the science department. He was able to work his way up to the Head of the Laboratory for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Russia. While there he was part of a government run cheating of WADA while the Olympics were in Sochi. He implicates the KGB as well as the Director of WADA in Russian, The Deputy Minister of Sport in Russian, The Minister of Sport in Russia as well as Vladimir Putin.

In the course of his unveiling of the systematic corruption and state sponsored doping in Russia, Rodchenkov’s life is turned upside down. He is forced to flee his homeland and his family’s life is in peril. During the filming of the movie his direct supervisor Nikita Kamaev, the Director of WADA in Russia, dies from a sudden heart attack. Rodchenkov does not believe it to be an accident and is convinced he was taken care of.

His story and the evidence he brings forward is broken by the New York Times in 2016. It unleashes havoc on the Olympics. Multiple investigations are launched looking into the accuracy of these claims and trying to understand how far and wide the cheating of Russian athletes is. The answer, its all-encompassing. Though WADA and the IOC are convinced of the truthfulness of the claims somehow the Russian athletes are able to compete in Rio and will again in the South Korean Olympics. As we covered in a post some weeks ago, there is evidence that all that was exposed in this documentary is still happening in Russia. The cheating has not stopped, it continues. And it is still sponsored by the Russian government. Yet somehow, Russia is continually allowed to compete.

There are two very troubling reasons why this may be. The first is that Russian controls the IOC. Whether by bribery or intimidation, the Olympics cannot stand up to Russia. If this is the case, shame on them. Shame on all those that sit on the committee. Shame on those representatives from the United States for allowing such corruption.

The second reason is more upsetting. Maybe they are all cheaters. Maybe Russia and Russian athletes are not alone. Maybe the United States and other major players in the Olympics are not willing to risk their own exposure by going after Russia. This is by far the most disturbing conclusion to come to. But not one to be readily dismissed.

The second half of the movie makes several references to George Orwell’s 1984. 1984 was one of the most influential books on the world and through Rodchenkov’s own perspective, he is living in that world. He says, “Doping and anti-doping it was pure and exact doublethink”. Orwell’s world has come to fruition and never more obviously than in the world of athletic doping.

The title, Icarus, is taken from the character of Greek Mythology. Icarus and his father, Deadalus, try to escape Crete through wings his father created of feather and wax. His father warns him not to fly too high or too low. However, Icarus flies too close to the sun causing the wax to melt and he to fall to his death. The naming of the documentary would be describing how the anti-doping and doping scientist in Russia must live. They must follow the path. They must cheat to bring praise to Russian athletics and thus Russia while also keeping the cheating so under wraps that no one must know. Rodchenkov leaves the path.

This is a very interesting documentary. I would recommend it, but for adults. Fogel shows his injections of the steroids and there is some crude language. It is a long documentary that really could be two with two completely different themes. The footage and story telling of such a historic event is worth watching for every sports fan. Yet be warned, you could leave the documentary feeling very jaded about the whole Olympic system. This documentary is available on Netflix.


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