How your favourite world records are but a sham
By virtue of being a documentary film that is more than just about its stated subject — a huge, state-sponsored doping cover-up in the Russian Athletics Federation — Icarus may change how one views pro sports forever.
At the film’s Oscar acceptance speech, director Bryan Fogel said his film was “yes, about Russia but about the importance of telling the truth, now more than ever”.
It is hard to talk about Icarus as a film without talking about a figure whose spectre is all over its doping theme a full 30 years later: Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Johnson stood on top of the world, albeit for only a few days. After winning the 100m sprint in 9.79 seconds, he, for a few moments, had validated the status of all Caribbean immigrants to so-called First World countries.
In the lead-up to the Seoul Olympics, Johnson’s athletic career was undergoing a lot of changes, with a distance between him and his coach Charlie Francis, causing him to rely more on the Saint Kitts-born doctor George Mario Astaphan, recruited by Francis.
Astaphan began working with Francis’s athletes in 1984, supervising the drug regimen of athletes such as Johnson, Angella Issajenko, Mark McCoy and Desai Williams. Prior to that big race, Johnson had been nursing an injury, having torn a hamstring and losing to rival Carl Lewis at the 1987 World Championships, his first loss in three years.
But after what was a marvellous recovery in the form of a new world record of 9.79 in Seoul, Johnson and his handlers’ first instinct was to lie, prompting a series of awkward interviews and a revelation of the extent of Johnson’s infantilisation.
In an interview, Astaphan calls Johnson “the son that he would have wanted” and yet, for self-preservation, Astaphan recorded all their interactions related to the administering of steroids.
The image of Johnson, which he did little to repeal after first being caught doping, was that of a bumbling bionic man with little in the way of self-confidence. Initially banned for two years, Johnson was again caught doping in 1992 and then banned for life. Although Johnson was bust alone in 1988, depending on who is telling the story, either six or all eight of the runners on that track had been juiced up on banned substances.
So why was Johnson singled out for humiliation and called names, such as the “greatest cheat in sports history”? Why did it emerge only in 2003 to the public that Lewis, who had set himself up as the angel to Johnson’s devil, had also failed a drug test in the run-up to Seoul?
Makes you wonder about sport, doesn’t it?
But I understand now, why, when asked about whether he would do anything differently in the lead-up to the Seoul Olympics, Johnson looks at his interviewer and says: “That’s a difficult question. I won’t answer that one. I’m gonna leave that one out.”
As infamous steroid smuggler Victor Conte says in an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, sports is still “a level playing field, just not the one everyone thought it was”. Physical attributes alone don’t cut it; you need a doctor who knows his kit and has all the insider information to beat the system.
In Icarus, Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian citizen, becomes that guy to Bryan Fogel, entering the picture through a referral and advising Fogel how best to juice up his performance in a gruelling amateur bike race.
After a regimen communicated by Skype, Fogel develops a bond with the affable, straight-talking Russian and feels stronger as he tackles the race but falters when he encounters a technical problem with his bike, falling way down in the standings compared with his unjuiced performances of previous years.
As their bike race experiment goes bust, the film shifts gear, with the focus moving on to Rodchenkov — the former director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre and key lynchpin in Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme — as a key suspect in the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) investigation into Russian doping.
“We have found cover-ups, destruction of samples in the laboratories, payments of money in order to conceal doping tests,” says Wada’s Dick Pound, explaining the findings of an independent commission. “Our conclusion is that none of this could have continued to happen without the knowledge of the state authorities.”
Rodchenkov remains adamant that he was just a cog in the system. President Vladimir Putin was at least aware, he claims, stating “he took me from the prison for such [a] special affair”.
Why Rodchenkov is so likeable one never quite knows, for he is as tainted as they come. He speaks about sabotaging a former colleague, a predecessor whom he calls a “conveyor of athletes who had his own protocols and deep success”. Rodchenkov messes with the detection windows of his predecessor’s steroid stock, leading to a string of positive tests. His mission, apparently, was to rid Russia of dirty steroids.
As Fogel watches Pound speak on television, he realises just how central to proceedings Rodchenkov is. “Forty pages of this report is Rodchenkov,” he mutters, poring over the 300-plus-page document of findings. The timing of the findings threaten the country’s standings in the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In the year before, when the scandal breaks, Rodchenkov is pushed to resign by Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, and he feels an impending sense of doom based on how much he claims to know about both sides. He manages to escape to the United States in February 2016 and goes about setting up shop as a whistle-blower.
Russia’s spin goes into overdrive as the state officials try to distance themselves from the goings-on.
“He is confusing himself for the government,” Mutko says. “All that he did he did on his own, as one man. It was a solo act … These allegations are not fact, just rumours and speculation.”
With Fogel’s help Rodchenkov goes ahead with prepping his side of the story, leaking it to The New York Times, with sensational results. In the end, the weight and scale of Russia’s fail-safe system is just too much to comprehend for the credibility of sport.
Rodchenkov claims that more than half of Russia’s medals in the London Olympics were dirty, and the independent commission report finds that more than 1 000 Russian athletes were involved, but it is impossible to determine history and scale.
Perhaps to save the credibility of all sports, the International Olympic Committee allows Russia to participate, refusing to ban the Russian Sports Federation, despite Wada recommendations.
Although the film could use a trim and is carried by the sheer magnitude of the scandal and Fogel’s fortuitous proximity to its biggest player, it makes for riveting viewing. But perhaps only if, like me, you have just entered the sports doping fray feeling all wide-eyed, cheated and moralistic.
Also contributing to its appeal could be the fact that it vindicates every viewer watching it. We are all Rodchenkov to an extent, caught between a rock and a hard place, covering our tracks for the sake of survival, at whatever scale.
To quote Johnson: “Everybody cheats in life. Everybody tries to cheat on their taxes.”
But trust that they will try to make some lowly athlete take the fall, and some higher-up figure with more skeletons in their closet will spill all the athlete’s beans for clemency. Forget track and field; the entire world is a jungle and, as Icarus tells it, only the ones with the smartest doctors will survive it.
Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is available on Netflix