The myth of Icarus was on Bryan Fogel’s mind long before he picked up a camera to shoot his first-person account of how to get away with doping in professional sports.
After watching the long fall of Lance Armstrong, who cheated his way to seven Tour de France wins, Fogel — a filmmaker and avid cyclist — conjured the idea of putting himself through a performance-enhancing drug regime to prove just how easy it is for an athlete to cheat the system.
Perhaps as cynical as he was curious, Fogel set out to become his own steroid-riddled guinea pig. For guidance, he turned to Grigory Rodchenkov, then the gregarious head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, who enthusiastically agreed to show Fogel how to cheat the system.
The parallel between Armstrong and Icarus, the character, is clear — each bore a ceaseless, destructive desire to push for greater heights before an inevitable crash. And that parallel plays out in a big way in Icarus, Fogel’s documentary, which was released on Netflix in August.
The original premise was engaging in its own right. But the documentary doesn’t go according to that plan. Very quickly, Fogel’s PED version of Super Size Me morphs into a real-life John le Carré thriller.
In Rodchenkov, Fogel had befriended one of the key figures in Russia’s decades-long, state-sponsored doping program. Soon after, Rodchenkov’s name was making the headlines as a German television documentary exposed the wild, almost inconceivable, doping efforts by Russians at the Sochi Olympics. We’re talking about the mass storage of clean urine samples across the street from a seemingly secure testing facility; samples were passed through secret holes cut into walls, and state-of-the art seals were broken and replaced.
In the fallout, Rodchenkov fleed Russia to the United States, where he became a whistleblower, further exposing the decades-long scheme. And Fogel kept his camera running the entire time.
“This was unfolding in real time, with outcomes that I couldn’t predict,” says Fogel, who found himself wrapped up in an international scandal.
But alongside that scandal, at the core of film is the lingering question of just how far not only individual athletes — but indeed, entire nations — are willing to go to be “the best.” And could the potential rewards of continuous doping possibly be worth not just the extreme inherent health risks — but the risk of losing the rewards altogether?
“The guy had won his seven Tour de Frances, but it wasn’t enough. He still had to go against his adversaries, he still had to piss people off. He didn’t extend a hand to anybody who needed help,” says Fogel. “And he kept pushing and pushing and pushing until he finally tumbled to the earth.”
Armstrong is, of course, just one in a long, ever-growing list of exceptional athletes who have cheated. The human drive for fame is, at least, something we can comprehend.
But why, in the 21st century, do some nations care enough about athletic success to sponsor a massive plan to cheat? How much propaganda can a nation pull out of success in a sport?
Evidently, a lot.
Ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which cost Russia $44 billion to put on, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating was at an all-time low. As noted in Icarus, after Russian athletes won 13 gold medals and led the overall medal count, Putin’s approval rating sky-rocketed to an all-time high, coinciding with the annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Ukraine.
Fogel cites George Orwell’s description of international sports as “war without weapons” when imagining why some nations would go to such lengths to win.
“It is a moment in that country’s history [where] these athletes are not competing as individuals,” he says. “They are competing as a country… showing the world how advanced they are as a culture and how they can win.”
But the lessons of the Icarus story remain — eventually, when you push too far, you come crashing down. While many Russian athletes were initially banned ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics only to largely be reinstated in time for the Games, Armstrong was stripped of his wins and ostracized from the sport.
Like Icarus, he was warned about what would happen if he flew too high. He knew about the long fall that would follow.
But he went for it anyway.
And just like Armstrong, like Russia — Icarus reminds us that, inevitably, somehow, there will always be those among us who will.