2017 Sundance Film Festival London: Icarus Review
Lance Armstrong's fall from grace has been well documented. A one-time cycling God who was caught cheating, stripped of his titles and exposed as a fraud. Except of course, he was never actually caught taking drugs. 500 drug tests taken over the course of his career highlight that fact. Instead, under pressure, it was his teammates who offered him up to investigators. These flaws in WADA's (World Anti-Doping Agency) drug testing system was the intended focus of director Bryan Fogel's Icarus. Two years of involvement with Vladimir Putin, the CIA, the FBI and a worldwide conspiracy, shifted the film into an entirely different context.
Fogel is a top amateur endurance cyclist and was keen to see if he could pass the same WADA level tests while pumped full of a whole range of banned performance enhancing substances. After consulting a number of high-level experts, he was directed to Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia's, WADA approved, anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov is an eccentrically playful scientist who is easy to warm to, and seemingly has no issue taking part in the project. At the same time as Fogel is enlisting his help, a German documentary surfaces alleging a doping scandal taking place in Russia, placing the laboratory and Putin's Government under intense scrutiny.
As the lab Director, Rodchenkov is set up to become the fall guy, despite the chain of authority also clearly pointing upward towards the Kremlin. Fearing for his life, he has no choice but to leave behind his wife and family, arriving in the US where Fogel puts him into hiding. It's a move quickly justified as within weeks of each other, both Rodchenkov’s boss and his predecessor die from surprise heart attacks. From the early stages of his involvement in Fogel’s project, Rodchenkov admits that he has overseen the systematic doping of Russian athletes since the 1980s. The Sochi Winter Olympic Games on Russian home soil proved to be a pinnacle that produced 13 gold medals, with every single one assisted by the use of illegal drugs. When we are taken through the secret agent style antics behind the elaborate scheme to beat the testing system at these Games, it is simply mind boggling.
Of course, Putin and his government deny every allegation, despite the disclosure of thousands of documents by Rodchenkov containing hard factual evidence, much of which was referenced in a 2016 New York Times article. Fogel frames these continued denials around Orwell's 1984 doublespeak, where lies become the truth and vice versa. Repeat a falsehood enough times until it sticks and becomes the 'accepted' truth. It would be naïve, of course, to suggest that Russia and Trump are the only country to employ this method, given how standard the practice has become for every almost every Government administration in modern history.
Fogel finds himself implicitly drawn into the centre of his own documentary, aiding a Russian fugitive and whistleblower pursued by the KGB, FBI, WADA, IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations) and highlighted by the American authorities as one of the reasons behind a vengeful Russia interfering in the last Presidential campaign. Fogel manages to get all of the key players from WADA and IAAF interviewed on camera and each one admits that the tests being rigged in such a manner damages the credibility of not only athletics, but effectively every single sport in the world.
There isn’t much flair behind how Fogel pieces this story together, but given he has Rodchenkov primed and ready to reveal all, it's akin to having a smoking gun with fingerprints and a signed confession. Despite being banned by both the IAAF and WADA ahead of the last Olympic Games, Russia were permitted entry at the last minute by the IOC (International Olympic Committee), confirming how deeply corrupt power truly can be. Rodchenkov has since disappeared into the United States Federal Witness Protection Program, an unlikely anti-hero who has forever doused the Olympic flame.