Russian doping scandal whistleblower documentary ‘Icarus’ is disturbingly relevant to contemporary politics
By Bliss Bowen
It’s no hyperbole to say that the documentary “Icarus,” which won the Orwell Award at this year’s Sundance Festival, resembles a spy thriller. Tension escalates as director Bryan Fogel’s original plan to expose rampant doping in professional sports is overtaken by drama surrounding Russian scientist and anti-doping whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov, and “Icarus” assumes more profound relevance.
“The Russian press [is] calling Grigory a monster, calling him a traitor, calling him a liar, calling him a criminal,” Fogel says during a thoughtful interview. “Blaming this entire [doping] system on him, and Putin’s going on state television saying he doesn’t even remember his name — yet this guy is literally Russia’s equivalent of Edward Snowden. It would be like Obama or Trump telling you they don’t know who Snowden is.
“You’re seeing this doublethink and incredible lies, and no responsibility or accountability for actions. We’re seeing that mirror itself in the current U.S. political climate and what is coming out in the daily news cycle.”
Early scenes show Fogel, an amateur bicyclist, competing on the Haute Route in Switzerland, where he ranks 14th. The Malibu resident and first-time documentarian consults Don Catlin, retired director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab, and Catlin refers him to Rodchenkov, under whose jovial Skyped guidance Fogel starts injecting himself with performance-enhancing drugs. Yet in the next race, he winds up placing 27th, partly due to bike issues. His painful realization that “if you don’t have the genetics, all the drugs in the world aren’t going to make you Lance Armstrong” gets swept aside as a German documentary fingers Rodchenkov as a central player in Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. That’s when “Icarus” clicks into high gear as a consequential story.
Rodchenkov is a charismatic, compellingly watchable figure who develops tests widening the window in which drugs are detectable in the body while also helping Russian athletes cheat the system. The film inspires natural concern for his wellbeing, despite nagging questions. (Did he never consider the consequences his actions would have for his family?) Did the chemist see his friendship with Fogel, with whom he bonds in film-grounding scenes over mutual love of dogs and sports, as a lifeline out of his Moscow lab?
“I don’t think as we started working together he saw the writing on the wall,” Fogel says. “On the other hand, it was just after he’d finished Sochi. … I do believe that in the back of his mind, especially with his level of intelligence, that he was thinking this could be a back-up plan. But also, I think he really helped me due to this friendship that started.”
Onscreen, the Technicolor extravagance of the Sochi Winter Olympic ceremonies contrasts grimly with the lab where Rodchenkov was substituting clean urine for dirty samples behind the scenes. Russian athletes won more medals than any other country, and the games pumped up popularity ratings for President Vladimir Putin, who rewarded Rodchenkov with the Order of Friendship. Did Rodchenkov discuss his ethical beliefs with Fogel?
“That’s an interesting question,” Fogel answers slowly. He takes care to position the “complicated issue” of Rodchenkov’s morality within the context of his upbringing in communist Russia as the athlete son of a mother who doped him, and his work as a scientist in Russia’s “pride and joy” sport program when the country was wracked with poverty.
“Not to justify anything that he did, but perhaps look at it outside of the Western perspective,” he says. “In America, if you’re going 100 miles per hour on the highway, and you get pulled over for a traffic ticket and you try to give the cop 100 bucks to walk away, you’re going to be in handcuffs 99.9% of the time. In Russia, if you don’t give the cop 100 or 200 bucks, not only are you going to get that ticket, you’re in trouble. You’re coming from a system where the entire sentiment is essentially everybody can be bought off, this is just how business operates.
“Where Grigory really had a moral dilemma, and where he really had a change of heart, was Sochi. Because in his mind, as he said, he essentially became a shit bag for the ministry — meaning it was no longer about the science, it was no longer about the cat-and-mouse game; it was just pure criminal fraud. Because of the success at Sochi, he sees Putin attack Ukraine and a lot of people die. I think that was his turning point of feeling guilt and remorse that he had contributed to this. And then also realizing that no matter what he did, he was ultimately disposable, that he was simply an employee of the state and he could be pushed under the bus at any time. … He was the only person on planet Earth who had this evidence.”
Fogel helped Rodchenkov defect to the United States in November 2015; a few months later, his colleagues Nikita Kamayev and Vyacheslav Sinev mysteriously died in Russia. Fogel and Rodchenkov’s correspondence was hacked and shared on Russian media. Rodchenkov gave detailed records to the FBI and, in a May 2016 interview with The New York Times, implicated Russian intelligence, Putin and sports minister (and current deputy prime minister) Vitaly Mutko, and described doping as a condition of employment. Fogel recalls that period of time as “really intense” because he knew he was “sitting on this nuclear bomb of information” that elevated the story to “the level of Snowden.”
The monumental cynicism on display throughout “Icarus” leaves a lingering aftertaste of unease. Richard McLaren’s explosive report for WADA in July 2016 confirmed Rodchenkov’s allegations of systemic, state-sponsored doping and recommended banning all Russian athletes from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Yet most Russian athletes were allowed to compete after International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s Orwellian declaration that athletics must be separated from politics.
Orwell haunts “Icarus” like a ghost. Rodchenkov is shown reading “1984,” and recites a passage in voiceover.
“Grigory is Winston,” Fogel says. “Putin is still denying these 1,700 pieces of forensic and scientific evidence, and he’s literally going, ‘I don’t even remember the guy’s name.’ There is Orwell, right there. It’s real.”
Is there realistic cause for concern that the Trump Administration might exchange Rodchenkov, who entered witness protection over a year ago, for Snowden? Fogel says yes, and says such a “horrendous” trade would violate America’s democratic foundations and threaten whistleblowers everywhere.
“I hope anybody who sees this film will really stand up for Grigory’s protection. Because without the Grigorys of the world, all these spectacular frauds and corruption go unpunished and undetected, and society doesn’t have
a chance to evolve.”
“Icarus” opens on Friday (Aug. 4) at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 478-3836 or visit laemmle.com. The film also begins streaming on Netflix on Aug. 4. Visit icarus.film for more info.