The Straight Dope on Netflix’ Icarus

By Mario Fraioli

At the recommendation of a few readers, I finally watched Icarus, the Netflix documentary about the Russian doping scandal that wasn’t supposed to be a documentary about the Russian doping scandal.

“Originally, the idea I had was to prove the system in place to test athletes was bullshit,” explains director Bryan Fogel, a competitive amateur cyclist who, with the help of a few prominent doctors, put himself on a performance-enhancing drug protocol to see how much faster he could ride while slipping under the radar of anti-doping officials.

That theme of the film was interesting but under-developed, and got overshadowed when Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, one of the doctors Fogel was connected with, blew the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme and had to flea the country before Vladimir Putin had him killed. Whether he liked it or not, that forced Fogel to get out of the way while Rodchenkov—and his involvement in the Russian doping scandal—became the main story. There were a number of “holy shit!” moments in the film, but none of the Russian-themed state-sponsored doping narrative came as a surprise, as much of it had already been reported in the news. What was shocking was watching it all go down—un-rehearsed—on the TV in front of me. It was a powerful piece of storytelling supported by almost unbelievable visuals that showed just how real, sophisticated and scary doping is in sport—NOT just in Russia, where it was institutionalized.

Also, while Rodchenkov is the main focus of the film, the most curious “character” in my mind is Don Catlin, an anti-doping scientist at UCLA who developed drug tests and still couldn’t get Lance Armstrong to fail one in at least 50 attempts.

“They were all doping, every single one of them. With certain knowledge, you can get around the tests anytime. Unfortunately, the drugs work,” Catlin says early on in the film.

This, I think, is the most interesting thread of the movie that wasn’t pulled on hard enough, and would go a long way in showing how easy it was/is for cheaters to stay ahead of testing.

+ Fascinating longform interview with Fogel, who talks to Jada Yuan of Vulture about meeting with U.S. government officials to discuss how Russia operates, whether or not his own life is in danger, how the making of the film unfolded, which drugs he took and how they made him feel, and more. This is a great supplement to the film.

“So I started tracking down all these scientists and they all told me the same thing. ‘Can you still beat the system?’ Yeah. ‘Does WADA work?’ No. And I began thinking, ‘There’s a movie here. You’ve never watched someone do these drugs on camera.’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’ve been riding my bike, so I’ll just do this. Who else will do this?’”

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.