How the Netflix Original Doc., Icarus, Has Helped Expose a Dark Underbelly in Sports

WARNING: Spoilers for Icarus Ahead.

“Drug use, within entire teams continues unabated. It is planned and deliberate cheating, with complex methods, sophisticated substances and techniques, and the active complicity of doctors, scientists, team officials and riders. There is nothing accidental about it.” – Dick Pound (WADA)

Doping in sports has been a major issue for many years. Quite possibly since the creation of “sports,” in general. Athletes around the world have been caught, served suspensions, and been banned from there respective sport. So, why do they continue to take the chance? Doping is essentially the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to help recover at a faster rate. It helps improve your muscle strength and can also cut down on any body fat. Throughout the years, PEDs have haunted the world surrounding the Olympics, MLB, cycling, and the NFL.

Directed by Bryan Fogel, “Icarus” is a documentary that centers on one of the biggest sports scandals to date. It begins in June 2014 with an amateur cyclist, Fogel, preparing for a race set at Haute Route. The seven-day trek included the Alpine’s and was similar to the Tour de France, except it included no actual professionals. Fogel’s goal is to give everything that he has to finish as high up in the standings as possible. At the completion of the trek, he has drained his body entirely and has finished 14th. Which is quite impressive considering many of the cyclists could easily become professionals. During a post-race conversation, Fogel states that the top 10 finishers were on another level from everybody else. This prompts him to dive into a whole new study.

Bryan Fogel in June 2014.

Fogel’s vision for the documentary was to essentially compare and contrast the use of PEDs. After stating early on that Lance Armstrong was an idol of his, and discussing his controversial career, Fogel wants to learn how he was able to pass so many drug tests. With the help of Don Catlin, the former director of a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at UCLA, and many other athletic specialists, he was able to locate a doctor that would assist him. The doctor was also the director of a Russian anti-doping laboratory that helped prevent athletes from using human growth hormones (HGH) through strict drug testing. His name is Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. So, does this all sound a little like Super-Size Me? In some ways, but instead of eating McDonald’s for weeks on end, Fogel is going to build strength and reduce his body fat. Much healthier, right? Not so fast.

Fogel wants to use the PEDs during his training leading up to the 2015 Haute Route event. But in doing so, also wants to be able to pass a drug test. After a series of Skype calls with Dr. Rodchenkov, Fogel begins to inject testosterone into his body. This is not without the help of trainers. In the months leading up to the 2015 Haute Route event, Rodchenkov helps set Fogel up with a training schedule in a lab where he can track his progress. During this time, Fogel is also dating, refrigerating, and freezing certain urine samples. On a visit to the United States, Fogel and Rodchenkov discuss and examine the urine samples with plans to have them smuggled back to Russia. If Dr. Rodchenkov is a part of a WADA-affiliated anti-doping laboratory, then why is he helping Fogel pass drug tests? To me, that sounded a bit suspicious.

Bryan Fogel training in Icarus.

In June 2015, Bryan Fogel prepared to compete in the 7-day Haute Route trek once more. This time, not on his own strength. At the time of the race, he had been taking HGH for nearly 6 months. Fogel stated that during the race he felt much stronger and recovered like he never had before. But, on one of the race day’s, his bike’s gear’s would not shift, causing him to drop to 24th in the standings. Although Fogel felt much stronger, finishing worse while using PEDs would shatter any knowledge that he could have collected for his study.

The weeks that followed the race were everything shy of simple filming and collecting data. It would turn into what IMDb refers to as a “geopolitical thriller.” The Russian lab where Dr. Rodchenkov resided as director would come under investigation, and soon suspended, for administering athletes with PEDs and helping them pass drug tests. A few short Skype calls were incredibly tense due to the fact that Dr. Rodchenkov resigned shortly after the lab was no longer functional. Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov, with the help of Fogel, fled to the U.S. While here, a long time friend of Dr. Rodchenkov named, Nikita Kamaev, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. This sparks a whole new story about the Russian government knowingly pushing athletes to use PEDs under the watch of Vladimir Putin. Many of the stories are terrifying, to say the least.

Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov in Icarus.

Still, in the U.S., Rodchenkov spills everything that he knows about the investigation to The New York Times. There, it was published and essentially helped no one’s cause. A sit-down interview between Fogel and Rodchenkov during the ladder part of the film helps give viewers an understanding of what was really happening in Russia. We find out that nearly 50% of the Russian medalists in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games were using HGH. What shocked me the most is that this has been going on since the late 1960’s.

It is also learned that Rodchenkov was given this job as a type of “redemption.” He received the position of director because Putin knew of his ability to get around drug tests. After a suicide attempt in the mid-2000’s, Dr. Rodchenkov  had served jail time/psychiatric care for distributing PEDs to athletes while in an anti-doping center. Why would Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov want to go through with this again? Putin wanted him, and he wanted for Russia to look dominant in the 2014 Sochi games. But in 2016, thanks to Rodchenkov’s comments to the Times, Russia’s doping agency was put to a halt. This led to a ban for the Russian Olympic athletes in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

When will associations come up with urine sample bottles that absolutely cannot be tampered with? PEDs have put a damper on sports for years and I hope that the recent investigations on Russian athletics have opened the eyes of athletes around the world. Icarus has helped shine a light on a horrifying underbelly of not just Russian athletics, but all country’s athletics as well. It is widely known that athletes continue to use HGH to improve there game especially in the U.S. I feel that the real question here should be, “when will this ever stop?”

Dr. Rodchenkov and Fogel in Icarus.

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