I remember listening to sports radio years ago – I think it was Dan Patrick, but don’t quote me – and there had been a poll of Olympic athletes. I paraphrase as I say the survey question was something to the effect of, “Would you, as an Olympian, prefer to win the Gold Medal – with the understanding you would therefore surely die by age 40 – or take Silver, and live life indefinitely…?” And the results were something overwhelmingly positive, as in 80% GOLD to 20% Silver/Live Indefinitely… So, I’ve felt for years that I am built very differently – both physically and mentally – from Olympians.
This anecdote is related to Netflix’s documentary film Icarus, which had its first success at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. As documentary films go, Icarus stands as one of the tallest in my humble opinion. The non-fiction story is impressive, as is often the case when watching this genre. But, what makes Icarus so exceptional is the way the filmmakers follow along its unexpected ride. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean that the movie does not start where it ends in any respect. The fact the filmmakers navigated the twists and turns of the narrative in real time, as it was playing out is a tribute to their production skill – and mettle as human beings.
Let me start at the beginning. The point of the film as it begins is for professional cyclist Bryan Fogel to gain a better understanding of how Lance Armstrong, and other cyclists like him, have been able to game the system so easily. He wants to experiment with steroids, and see how much better his performance goes from one year in competing in the Tour of Switzerland compared to the next. You’ll surely get an insight to Brian’s competitive nature when you see where he places in the field the first year – without the influence of narcotics. Anyhow, we begin this journey with Brian in the same boat – just like a scientific experiment, we’re going to state a hypothesis, run a control test and then compare that control test with an alternate test to observe and analyze the results.
Well, the whole tale takes a dramatic turn when it turns out the very advisor Fogel hires is none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who happens to be far up in the Russian hierarchy of Russian state athletics. Rodchenkov, who is a caricature of a caricature by the way, hops on Skype in his first interaction with Fogel – and he’s got no shirt on. In the same video, he is continually distracted by the family cat, and has no qualms about broadcasting his adoration for the feline as the discussion progresses. The guy is in mis mid 50s. And he is so bizarre and funny that you almost forget you’re watching non-fiction for a moment. The point is, this character is going to advise Fogel on exactly what drugs to take, how to take them (shot to the buttocks or elsewhere, etc) and the dosages, too. We get the feeling right away that this isn’t Rodchenkov’s first rodeo – or whatever the Russian equivalent is to rodeo.
Now, as it turns out, Rodchenkov is the top of the pyramid as far as doping research and execution goes in Russia. He has been responsible for systematically enhancing the performance of Russian athletes – and Olympians in particular – since the 1980s. You might feel as if I’m ruining the film for you, but I promise I’m not. In fact, I’m confident I could relate the entire story to you and it would still be worth watching just how Rodchenkov is able to assist Fogel in his experiment – and how he ultimately becomes the thrust of the entire story. I’m struggling to remember a documentary that so dramatically shifts its focus while only increasing the suspense. Regardless, Rodchenkov has a lot to get off his chest, and Fogel and his filmmaking team deserve massive credit for making the man feel comfortable enough to share his insights and confessions with the world. But, it seems that when you name names and admit to the involvement of the KGB (also known as FSB – let’s just say “Russian Intelligence” to make it crystal clear), the despot Mr. Putin doesn’t take too kindly to it.
As a documentary, Icarus ebbs and flows with an entertaining and thrilling pace. The presentation of new characters, which range from the UCLA doctor in charge of creating the first anti-doping tests, to members of the IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), is handled well in that we know who Fogel is talking to and the purpose of the interview. The introduction of Rodchenkov is interesting, then amusing, then appalling – and ultimately a mix of all these emotions and more. The direct involvement of Russian officials all the way to the top of their government, and how Fogel proves the links to the IOC and WADA reminded me of classics like All the President’s Men and the more recent Spotlight. This won’t spoil anything, but the film even references another world event in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine covered here on ronhamprod in the Winter on Fire entry.
The philosophical questions raised by Icarus continue to intrigue me even weeks after seeing the film. For example, from a cycling standpoint, if all of the athletes are on drugs… does that mean the contest is not actually rigged, but in a bizarre way, an even playing field has resulted? From an Olympics standpoint, I don’t see how the organization can rebound from the revelations Icarus presents without a full external audit of how both the IOC and WADA was able to miss such blatant, systematic cheating. Concerning the almost throwaway reference to Chinese steroid production, will that country be next on the list of investigations by IOC and WADA? Are there other countries who have the kind of secrets contained that Rodchenkov just confessed to here?
Lucky for you, dear Reader, Icarus is on Netflix this minute. And, perhaps you saw the news recently that Russia has been banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea in less than 100 days. It’s fascinating to watch when a great film enters the social conversation – particularly when it’s true. As this is the holiday season, let me raise a glass to truth – something we can all drink to.