Icarus.

Icarus, a documentary now available on Netflix, covers the Russian state-sponsored doping program for Olympic athletes from the most direct, personal angle possible: The director was working with the architect of the program on a completely different project when the story broke in a German documentary, The Doping Secret: How Russia Makes its Winners. So instead of merely following the chronology of the program’s execution, the leak to the press, and the subsequent drama around the WADA recommendations to ban all Russian athletes from the 2016 Olympics and the IOC’s decision to give WADA the finger, Icarus gives it to viewers in real time from the perspective of one of the whistleblowers who ends up fearing for his life.

Filmmaker Bryan Fogel decided, on what appears to be a whim, to race in a Haute Route cycling event, a seven-day endurance test across difficult terrain, this time in the Alps of southeastern France. (They also hold similar events in the Pyrénées and in the Rockies.) He finishes in the top 20, but his body just gives out near the end, so he does what any normal person would do in response – he decides to start doping to see how much a little artificial help will improve his performance. (He notes that the event bans performance-enhancing drugs but doesn’t bother testing for them.) He contacts the former head of the main U.S. testing lab, who agrees to help but eventually reneges and refers Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Centre, a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory that would test athletes for PED usage. Rodchenkov also knew quite a bit about the benefits of the various PEDs available to Fogel and helped him design a protocol, with the help of an “anti-aging” doctor here in the U.S., to improve his performance in a second shot at the Haute Route.

That second race doesn’t go as well as planned, but it becomes thoroughly secondary to the film’s real story: The German documentary exposes the Russians’ state-run doping program, claiming many of the country’s medals in recent Olympics, including Sochi, were achieved by athletes who should have failed PED tests but didn’t. Rodchenkov was actually running the doping program on the side, even while he was running the anti-doping facility, and during the filming of Icarus, he begins to fear that the government is watching him and possibly preparing to arrest him, so he flees to the U.S. and tells his everything to the New York Times for a piece that ran on May 12, 2016. That article blew the doors off the scandal and led to a longer WADA investigation, which the IOC chose to ignore because of reasons we can only imagine – as Rodchenko makes it clear that he believes Vladimir Putin, who approved the doping program, will stop at nothing to silence his enemies. We learn that one of Rodchenkov’s associates died, allegedly of a heart attack, in February 2016, shortly after the German film aired; another died the same month, with both men former directors of Russia’s anti-doping agency.

There is so much to unpack in Icarus, which is thoroughly gripping even though you invest the first 40 minutes or so in a story that doesn’t matter. (It’s never really clear why Fogel is willing to subject his body to the doping regimen, whether it’s a desire to win, a desire to show what doping can do, a Morgan Spurlock-style attitude to filmmaking, or something else). What was a weird but intriguing documentary that looked at the history of doping and the cat-and-mouse game between the athletes who use such drugs and the labs that try to catch them turns into a darker, real-life spy thriller. The film doesn’t bother with bothsidesism; Rodchenkov’s credibility isn’t questioned, nor are we given any reason to question it, and he provides Fogel with detailed notes on specific athletes’ regimens that seem to immediately convince a group of appalled members of WADA who walked into a conference room believing that this kind of program was physically impossible. (The KGB manages to tamper with WADA’s tamper-proof caps, among other tricks.) And a subsequent special investigation, led by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, found that over 1000 Russian athletes had doped in events over the time period covered.

Two angles in particular stand out from this. One, relevant to those of us here with an interest in baseball, is that a sufficiently determined and organized group can defeat even a sophisticated testing program. This isn’t about masking agents, or super-secret new drugs that haven’t hit testing protocols yet, but about physical exchange of dirty samples for clean ones that won’t test positive. It shows how difficult such a scheme would be to pull off … but also that it was pulled off, successfully, for years, and therefore is at least feasible.

But I don’t know how you can watch Icarus now without drawing the obvious parallel: Vladimir Putin approved a program to interfere with a competition that went beyond his own borders to try to engineer the results he desired – and even when given irrefutable proof of what he did, he just dismisses it as, in essense, fake news. He even gets away with it, despite those meddling kids, because I’ve seen jellyfish with stronger spines than the IOC, which just gave carte blanche to any major power to dope the hell out of its athletes. There’s even a scene where we see a Russian TV show airing emails between Fogel and Rodchenkov – emails obtained via hacking. We’re fighting someone who appears willing to do anything, perhaps even kill, to achieve his goals, and who thus far has proved immune to any penalty or retribution. It’s a grim projection for the future of international sport … and our elections, too.

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