“I believe that Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.” -Poet Jack Gilbert
The documentary film Icarus explores our collective admiration the exploits of athletes at the top of their game, as well as our collective disappointment when it is revealed that these feats are bolstered by the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Who is Icarus?
In Greek mythology, Icarus’ hubris leads him to fly a bit too close to the Sun—and to fall from the sky. It is a fitting image to evoke here in a film that examines the way in which professional and amateur athletes alike look for ways to beat the system and use doping drugs without detection.
About the Icarus Film
The documentary Icarus feels like it hits the large and small screen at an opportune time. As happens in the most engaging documentaries, the filmmakers start out to chronicle one storyline and an unexpected turn of events leads them to cover a completely different narrative. So it goes with Icarus.
Icarus begins as one man’s investigation (Bryan Fogel) of the efficacy of performance-enhancing drugs (popularly known as “doping”) and the science of how to slip through the testing process. In the second part of the film, we find ourselves immersed in what is arguably the biggest sport doping scandal in modern era: the entire Soviet national team. Bigger even than the doping scandal of Lance Armstrong, who inspired the film in the first place.
Meet the Filmmaker, Bryan Fogel
Novice filmmaker Bryan Fogel is an amateur cycling enthusiast who is competing at the highest level of the sport. Personally disappointed in Armstrong’s eventual admission of doping, Fogel set out to document on film just how the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) could improve his own biking performance and how an athlete could go about covering up his use of doping. Fogel competed cleanly in a very strenuous amateur French biking event (Haute Race) then he filmed himself preparing for the race using PEDs. His goal was to chronicle the difference in his performance times.
Throughout his training and use of PEDs, Fogel was introduced to an anti-doping expert, a laboratory scientist in Russia who agreed to supervise the filmmaker’s doping and show him how to elude positive tests (even though the amateur race did not do drug testing). After the second race, Fogel flew to Russia to tour Rodchenkov’s lab.
End of story one.
Twists and Turns
This scientist, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov (the Icarus character) has had dubious triumphs. He ran the most prominent anti-doping testing lab of professional athletes in Russia. This turned out to be the most notorious secretive doping lab.
The story is revealed as the film itself goes on steroids. Months after Fogel’s trip to Russia, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) began investigating the lab for a suspected state-sponsored doping cover-up. Director of the lab and concerned about his own safety, Rodchenkov enlisted the help of Fogel to escape Russia. Stunned, the filmmaker arranged to fly the now-disgraced lab director to LA.
The ensuing events play like a John Le Carre novel. The easy-going jovial protagonist (Rodchenkov) transforming into a sharp-minded, determined whistleblower revealing Russian state secrets. Naïve at first, the mild-mannered filmmaker Fogel steps up to help Rodchenkov release his incriminating lab records and to seek asylum.
All this intrigue occurred in 2016 in the backdrop of the Rio Summer Olympics, from which the Russian track and field team were banned due to the doping scandal. WADA even attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban the entire Russian team. The defection and release of state secrets appear to have put Rodchenkov’s and even Bryan’s lives in jeopardy. What a ride!
Karen Henry is an Associate Editor at LA YOGA who volunteers in a variety of capacities for nonprofit organizations and artists around Los Angeles. She practices yoga as a counterbalance to her daily impact sports and is a mother of four grown children who also practice yoga . Now, she’s working on teaching yoga and joy of life to the grandkids!