Icarus – the rise and rise of Russian doping

My Rating ****

Genre – Documentary

Run Time – 2 Hours

Certificate – 13A

Country – USA

Oscars – I win

Awards – 7 Wins & 12 Nominations

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It’s pretty fair to say professional cycling can go no lower as far as drugs go. The Tour de France is an event you can’t even finish without some sort of chemical boost, it’s that grueling. British sense of fair play almost cleansed the sport through the Sky Team but soon discovered to be up to the same shenanigans. Again it was hacked reports and whistle-blowers that bought down the sport and the same old story of the governing body covering up positives to protect a sports integrity. When Lance Armstrong had a suspicious test result the UCI gave him a day to find a reason why he had failed, before releasing the result. His team hit the internet and researched where the illegal substance could have innocently come from. They settled on a hemorrhoid cream and he got away with it the next week.

Although Icarus, the winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary, is pitched as a cycling movie and, indeed, set out to be one it ends up as something very different, a tale of state doping, Russia and complicity of federations in sport. The original idea by amateur cyclist and filmmaker Bryan Fogel was to make a film about him doping for the first time in his sport and see what sort of performance improvement he would get, the twist being he would then send his samples off to WADA, and with help of experts, try to get them through clean using all the tricks of the trade, how Armstrong and the Russia Olympic team got away with it for so long. What turns out to be an interesting premise turns into something much bigger and darker though….


Thomas Bach  …         President, International Olympic Committee

Sebastian Coe …

Bryan Fogel    …

Nikita Kamaev

Vladimir Putin            .

Grigory Rodchenkov  …..Head of Russian doping labs


First time filmmaker and top amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel decides it would be rather interesting to see how well he would do in the world’s toughest amateur cycle race, the ‘Haute Route’, a seven day grueling race in the French Alps, if he was on steroids and banned drugs, and film his experiences in documentary form.

That is indeed the plan and he sets about finding a doctor who will agree to administer the drug program safely. He finds one and they agree to one month of injections to enhance his training as the race approaches. It goes well and Fogel trains hard and finishes very high up in the 150 man field. 89 places higher than last time. To add some context to the film they then want the urine samples Fogel deposits over the month or so to be able to pass WADAs drug test. Clearly the top athletes have methods to evade positives and they will try the same methods.

Fogel and his team ask an ex America Olympic Committee Chief to take part in their film to how them the methods the drug lab he worked at on how athletes evade positives. He is a cynical man and thinks in his time most of the top athletes were cheating and evading. But he pulls out of the film late on as he thinks it will show him in a bad light but recommends they try Grigory Rodchenkov for their film instead, the current head of the Russian WADA lab in Moscow. He surprisingly agrees and the film moves forward as he explains to Fogel how to set up various things to make sure the samples will pass s negative.

The film then takes a sinister turn when German magazine Das Spiegel has an exclusive expose where a Russian athlete tells all about the KGBs extraordinary involvement in the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia to protect all Russian athletes to make sure they didn’t fail any test and embarrass Putin. His huge news story pulls Fogel and Grigory into a very dark place, one of the top guys at the lab and a great friend of Grigory having a sudden fatal heart attack as the crisis grows. It soon becomes clear Grigor may be in danger and needs to leave Moscow.


I wouldn’t say it was an Oscar winner but entertaining all the same. The edit is questionable and you do wonder how

much the jeopardy was played up to add tension. It does take an interesting turn as Grigory reveals his back-story to Fogel and why he may have ended up in this place. He clearly owed Putin a favor. It seems the Russian state doping program from the 1970s had not stopped and pretty much everyone in Russian athletics were implicated.

The gregarious Grigory is the star of the show and surprisingly candid early on about Russian doping, baring in mind he was the head of WADA in Moscow. He is very duplicitous character. He was clearly employed to run the Russian WADA lab on behalf of Putin.

The film moves forward with purpose and some of the injecting scenes pretty queasy so have the fast-forward close to hand. Once we get away from the cycling you won’t see a bike again and it becomes all about Russian state doping and the incredible complicity over the years. You all know the story of KGB guys drilling a hole in the wall and passing the urine samples through that hole at night to be replaced by clean samples. It’s not surprise the I.A.A.F. and I.O.C. do not want Russia competing any day soon.

So an enjoyable two hours and although that edit does hint that the timeline is not as it seems and footage added after the film was ready to go it’s still revealing. Fogel doesn’t really prove it’s easy to cheat cycling’s creaking doping system as all that is lost as the new and more interesting drama unfolds. That original film idea would not be winning Oscars though.

===RATINGS=== – 7.9 /10.0 (28,234votes) – 78% critic’s approval – 68% critic’s approval



What do you think?


Written by Phillip Ellis

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