Brian Fogel’s Icarus began as an independent project and exposure piece on the pitfalls of dope testing in amateur cycling competitions, but ended as a wild legal story beyond all expectations.
In Fogel’s attempt to prove the ineffectivity of athletic drug tests, he meets Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s premier anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov helps Fogel to establish a doping routine with which he would compete in the Haute Route, an intense cycling competition in which Fogel had previously come in 14th. Fogel believes that, if he documents himself doping and does noticeably better in the competition than he had the year before, it would lead to widespread athletic drug test reform. Fogel finds it odd that the head of the Russian anti-doping lab would help him administer performance-enhancing drugs to himself, but decides to ignore his concerns in order to complete the project.
In order to pass the drug tests required for the Haute Route, Fogel and Rodchenkov smuggle urine samples between Fogel’s home in the U.S. and Rodchenkov’s lab in Russia. Fogel dopes for about six months and successfully competes in the route a second time, coming in 24th place after one of his bike’s parts breaks. Though Fogel feels defeated after having dropped in rank, he ends up visiting Rodchenkov in Moscow, unaware that the scientist had been in the middle of a years-long scandal surrounding the Russian government’s involvement in a state-administered doping program in order to boost national morale through Olympic gold medal victories. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) catches on, and eventually, Rodchenkov is forced to forfeit his position. He escapes to the U.S., and the second half of the documentary follows he and Fogel’s legal battle to keep Rodchenkov from having to return to Russia because if he did, he would likely be assassinated. Eventually Rodchenkov ends up in U.S. witness protection, and he currently resides in an unknown location as a result.
Icarus is excellent in its focus on narrative and very effectively establishes its characters. Though Rodchenkov is portrayed as a somewhat shady and dangerous figure throughout the documentary, the audience eventually finds themselves rooting for him and his safety. The way the film unfolds is also incredibly engaging in that it continues past what it is expected to into a plot even more unusual. The audience is made to feel as if they are watching something deeply innovative and important, and the structure of the film helps to even further secure the audience’s attention. Overall, I highly recommend watching Icarus if given the chance.