Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Doyle: Netflix’s Icarus opens our eyes to the world of doping in athletics

Remember the 2016 Rio Olympics? Sure you do if you think about it – Canada's large medal accumulation and the pleasure taken in that.

But you may have forgotten that, before those Summer Olympics, there was considerable controversy about allowing Russian athletes to compete. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had recommended a blanket ban for all Russian athletes.

A report by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren stated Russia had operated a state-sponsored doping program for years. No doubt about it.

Story continues below advertisement

But Russia's Olympic team would have been 389 competitors. Ban them all and the Olympics might lose something – the frisson of true competitiveness. Or something. Integrity be damned, 271 were cleared to take part by an International Olympic Committee panel.

Into this already strange circumstance steps Bryan Fogel, an American actor, playwright and cycling enthusiast.

Bemused and bewildered by the fuss that had surrounded the outing of superstar champion cyclist Lance Armstrong as a cheater – who had, despite denials, used performance-enhancing drugs – Fogel wanted to prove something. Specifically, he wanted to show that the entire anti-doping process was nonsense. If Armstrong could fool the system repeatedly, then the system was bogus. Icarus (now streaming on Netflix) is Fogel's bizarre and highly illuminating documentary account of what he did and why he did it. Without knowing it, he cycled himself into the centre of the international controversy about Russia's doping procedures. And he had the central figure in the huge drama helping him.

Fogel was just a guy who liked amateur competitive cycling. When, in 1986, American Greg LeMond became the first non-European professional cyclist to win the Tour de France, Fogel was hooked. He admired Armstrong, too, but eventually suspected that Armstrong couldn't be a clean athlete. Through the ups and downs of his career in showbiz, Fogel used cycling for exercise and therapy. And, eventually, he was obsessed by the idea of telling a story about challenging the dope-testing system.

As we see in the truly twisted story he tells in Icarus, he was easily put in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia's anti-doping centre in Moscow. A gregarious, jolly man who jokes constantly, Rodchenkov happily went along with Fogel's idea and promised to teach him how to use performing-enhancing medications but never test positive for them.

Why would an anti-doping specialist agree to game the system for an amateur American cyclist making a documentary? Therein lies the core drama of Icarus. Even as WADA was investigating Rodchenkov, the Russian was cheerfully egging Fogel on. In a way, his motivation is never cut and dry. It's implied. In part it is mischief. In part it seems to be an attempt to blow the anti-doping system to smithereens and walk away from it.

Whatever the motives, Rodchenkov is a fatally attractive character. At the start, he communicates with Fogel via Skype and swoons over Fogel's dog, which was always hanging around. Then he goes to L.A. and helps Fogel in person. Fogel then goes to Russia. As the narrative unfolds, the noose is tightening on Rodchenkov. Eventually, he tells Fogel that WADA has nailed him. He helped Russian athletes cheat at the Sochi Olympics and WADA has the evidence.

Story continues below advertisement

"Bryan, it's a disaster, they're killing people, cutting heads," he tells Fogel over Skype, in his typically grandiose but joking manner. What he wants, it seems, is to use Fogel's documentary to show how, as a state employee, he was forced to tell lies. The WADA conclusion and Fogel will help him break free of this burden.

Icarus is bewildering to watch at times. Canadians Dick Pound of WADA and McLaren appear several times, emphasizing that they've got the proof about Russia's state-sponsored cheating system. Meanwhile, Rodchenkov, their primary target, is cheerfully helping Fogel.

There are times when George Orwell's 1984 is used to frame the story, especially the portions about the "Ministry of Truth," which tells lies. But, thankfully, Fogel doesn't belabour this. The real point of the doc is to show that human nature compels people to be competitive and it compels people to do extraordinary things to survive. Rodchenkov wants to survive and will engage in amazingly brazen acts to achieve that. Fogel, as we see in his cycling, is incredibly competitive. He wants to win as much as he wants to expose the ridiculously flimsy anti-doping systems.

If you are spooked by needles and injections, Icarus isn't for you. We see Fogel self-medicate, as instructed by Rodchenkov and by an anti-aging specialist in Los Angeles. At times, Fogel himself is spooked by it all.

But if you want insight into cheating in sports and the complicated reasons why it happens over and over, Icarus will open your eyes as never before. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in athletics or competitive sports of any type.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.