Sports doping documentary Icarus has been eagerly awaited in the Cycling Plus office for the last few weeks and having dropped on Netflix over the weekend I found a bit of time early Saturday to check it out.
The film sees cyclist Bryan Fogel, ‘inspired’ by how his one-time hero Lance Armstrong evaded detection for so long, attempt to do the same in an amateur bike race. The goal: to show how easy it still is to rig the system.
So it was with some surprise when, sitting down Saturday morning with my bowl of Shredded Wheat, I found that I was also competing in said bike race – the 2015 Haute Route Alps.
Fogel, having finished 14th in the 2014 race, returned a year later charged to the gills on a cocktail of PEDs. Yet he could only muster 27th in his medically-enhanced form – the drugs must have clouded his judgement, given how his race was wrecked by an empty Di2 battery on stage 2. The irony that it was his bike, not body, that needed juice was delicious.
This part of the documentary takes up just a quarter of the two-hour runtime. And if this had been its sole focus, it wouldn’t have found a home on streaming behemoth Netflix. This sort of thing has been done before, and done better (check out Mark Daly’s 2015 Panorama investigation Catch Me if You Can).
It’s only once he departs the Haute Route that Fogel’s doc warms up. Truth be told it gets red hot, as he accidentally finds himself on the inside of the biggest sports doping scandal of all time: the state-sponsored programme in Russia, which centred on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In his original attempts to game the anti-doping system, Fogel was introduced to Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of a Moscow anti-doping lab and who would later be at the centre of the scandal. The film follows the pair as the chaos unfolds.
To say any more would be to spoil the film but from an inauspicious beginning, the film becomes a fun ride. It’s something of a buddy movie, with Fogel clearly developing a bond with the dodgy doc. Two very different characters, Icarus makes for an unlikely double act.
I say characters deliberately because if this wasn’t a documentary you’d say the character ‘Rodchenkov’ was one the best sketched creations in recent film history, undoubtedly the star of the show. Deadpan, charismatic, vulnerable, mischievous, scheming, unreliable – there are many descriptions for him, all there on the screen. It’s never easy to know where the villain ends and the patsy begins.
At one point, when he’s trying to persuade Fogel to move to Russia, he tells him it’s one of the most ‘relaxing’ places in the world. “Is that true?” asks a doubting Fogel. “No,” says Rodchenkov, with a glint in his eye. At another, he gets out of a car crooning, “I’m a wooomaaaaan in love!”