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.
At this point, the previously seemingly confident and in-control Rodchenkov begins to fear for his life. Notwithstanding those fears, he is able to flee, with Fogel’s assistance, by simply taking a commercial flight from Moscow to Los Angeles, where Fogel installs him in an apartment.
Rodchenkov is subpoenaed by the US Justice Department, with whom he negotiates for immunity and protection as an informant. Unbeknownst to the Justice Department, he gives The New York Times three days of interviews, which end up in a lengthy May 13, 2016, front-page lead story.
This sensationalized interview—printed even though it acknowledges that “Dr. Rodchenkov’s account could not be independently verified”—gains much more attention than the earlier IC Report and starts a chain of events that, in my opinion, led to what the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee initially announced, with great fanfare and without the benefit of individual hearings for athletes, as the mass ban of Russian athletes from both the Rio and Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics. An appellate process created numerous, controversial exceptions to the IOC ban in Rio and Pyeongchang, but the Paralympic ban was absolute in both 2016 and 2018.
The Times article briefly mentions the most damning conclusion of the IC Report—that Rodchenkov extorted money from Russian athletes—but merely says that it is “the only accusation he denies.” Extortion is the most damning conclusion because it is inconsistent with state-sponsored doping: there is no reason—and none has been given by anyone—for Russia to allow an individual like Rodchenkov to enrich himself through extortion.
Tellingly, Icarus, which in its second half turns Rodchenkov into a hero and a martyr, does not even mention the IC’s conclusion that Rodchenkov engaged in extortion. Instead, the hero worship of Rodchenkov in the film reaches its peak when Fogel, who is speaking for Rodchenkov before a group from WADA, states that “Grigory risked his life and is risking his life to do this.” In fact, as the film showed earlier, Rodchenkov fled Russia and became an informant because he believed that that was necessary for him to save, not to risk, his life.
The mixed motivations of informants and their questionable truthfulness are nothing new. What is new is that they are now the basis of an Academy Award–winning documentary that appears to sacrifice balanced reporting on the altar of martyrdom.
In his Academy Award acceptance speech, Fogel continued the lionization of Rodchenkov: “We dedicate this award to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, our fearless whistle-blower who lives in grave danger.” Clearly Rodchenkov was not fearless; indeed, if he had not been fearful, there would have been no Icarus.
There has been some debate about who is symbolized by the title Icarus, which refers to the mythical man who flew too close to the sun with wax wings that, of course, melted. Some say it was Fogel; some say it was Rodchenkov.
I would now nominate for that role the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which may regret its recognition of this film if Rodchenkov is revealed as a charlatan. One way that Rodchenkov may be exposed is the libel lawsuit brought in the United States against him by three Russian athletes. Given the mandatory fact-finding that both plaintiffs and defendants are subjected to in US lawsuits, it is difficult to believe that these Russian athletes would bring a suit without merit.
If the Academy fits the role of Icarus, an excellent nominee for Daedalus, the mythical father of Icarus who made the wax wings, would be The New York Times, for its unconfirmed article that, in my opinion, led to the mass punishment of athletes without individual proof of their guilt. It is sobering how much better accused persons do when they are accorded due process rather than being tried in the press.
Of course, all right-thinking people are against sports doping, especially the state-sponsored variety. That is not an excuse for mass punishment, however, nor the basis for an Academy Award to a film that glorifies an admitted wrongdoer.