Icarus, which won the Academy Award last week for best documentary, was generated by a minor doping scheme. That caper inadvertently led to, and was overshadowed by, the alleged major Russian state-sponsored Olympic doping program that is the main subject of the film. The earlier events, however, may be more revealing about the bona fides of the film’s two principals, director Bryan Fogel, who is also the athlete involved in the minor scheme and who is a major character in the film, and the then-director of the Moscow and Sochi laboratories certified by the World Anti-Doping Agency, Grigory Rodchenkov, who was at the center of both events and who is the other major character in Icarus.
The film begins in 2014 with the filmmaker and serious amateur bicyclist Fogel hatching a plot to dope for a rigorous bicycle race in the French Alps, with the hope that he would improve on his previous performance in that race (ironically, he didn’t) and escape detection by the doping authorities (he succeeded). To achieve those goals, the film shows Fogel consulting with one of the most respected doping scientists in the United States, Don Catlin, who had run the UCLA Olympic laboratory for 25 years.
Significantly, when Catlin became aware of the nature of the plan, which included prohibited drugs and prohibited access to a laboratory of the World Anti-Doping Agency, he refused to participate. This is exactly what one would expect from a law-abiding citizen at the top of his field.
Then it gets interesting. Fogel asks Catlin for a referral to someone who could play the role Fogel had set out for the doping scientist; Catlin then recommends Rodchenkov. When Fogel asks in the film “What made you think that Grigory might help me?,” Catlin responds on camera, “Well, it’s difficult for me to answer that without saying things about Grigory that aren’t very kind.”
The clear implication of Catlin’s statement is that Rodchenkov is shady, an implication that is immediately borne out by Rodchenkov’s words and actions. Notwithstanding the fact that Rodchenkov, at the time he was approached by Fogel, was the director of the Moscow and Sochi anti-doping laboratories tasked by WADA to catch both doping Russians and doping competitors at the Sochi Olympics, Rodchenkov readily agrees to help Fogel despite the clear prohibitions against both the drugs Fogel was going to use and the access to the Moscow WADA-certified lab to test for those drugs. The film shows Rodchenkov smuggling Fogel’s urine into the Moscow lab and testing it there.
Up to this point in the film, however, the viewer is not so much appalled by this conduct as fascinated by the jolly, engaging personality of Rodchenkov and by the evolving brotherhood between him and Fogel. Then the situation takes a serious turn.
The Moscow and Sochi labs in general and Rodchenkov in particular become the focus of WADA investigators known as the Independent Commission, or IC. The November, 2015 IC report is devastating, concluding that Russia sponsored doping and that Rodchenkov destroyed 1417 urine samples, was not credible about that, was at the center of the scheme and extorted money from Russian athletes to help them cover up their doping. The IC recommended the suspension of Russia from the Olympics, the decertification of the Moscow lab, and the removal of Rodchenkov as head of that lab. Rodchenkov resigned that position.