Director: Bryan Fogel
Cast: Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov
Watch Icarus online in the UK: Netflix UK
If you don’t want to have the results spoiled for you, look away now. An in-depth demonstration of how athletes, cyclists and Olympians can take performance-enhancing drugs without being detected, Icarus should come with a warning: you’ll never be able to look at professional sports in the same way again.
Director Bryan Fogel hits upon a neat idea at the start of his project, planning to go full Morgan Spurlock in his quest to prove that the drug-testing system in place for cycling is inadequate. Racing through Switzerland’s amateur Haute Route tournament, he begins a doping program to help him win, so that he can unmask it later – a Lance Armstrong-inspired stunt to change the sporting world for the better.
What begins as an enjoyable hike up a steep mountain, though, soon pedals into unexpected territory, as Fogel finds himself introduced to Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s Olympics drugs team. Agreeing to help Bryan concoct a cocktail of banned substances, it turns out that Grigory did exactly the same for Russia throughout the Sochi Winter Olympics, overseeing a state-sanctioned doping scheme to ensure that the country would win medals.
With Rodchenkov coming clean, his harmless experiment with Fogel evolves into a whistleblowing thriller, as the director races to get him out of Russia before he can be silenced. All the while, we get a first-hand account not only of his fight to stay a free man, but also the extreme lengths to which Russia went to secure victory. Bizarrely low-tech in some places and dizzyingly ambitious in others, the anecdotes of their scheme whizz part like chapters in a heist flick, with Rodchenkov a hilariously charismatic presence on camera – almost always accompanied by an excitable dog.
The story’s unpredictable nature, though, is a weakness as well as a strength, as Fogel struggles to wrestle the winding narrative into a cohesive whole. Pacing and consistency sometimes flag, with the late introduction of title cards a noticeable attempt to impose some structure. But given three months by Netflix to tighten and tweak following its Sundance premiere, there’s a sense that things can’t be compacted more than they have been – and, in its final form, Icarus’ glossy titles, effective use of music and sheer access to a bombardment of eye-opening facts make for compelling, endlessly surprising viewing.
As President Putin stands there denying everything, despite the proof mounting up on screen, and the Olympics governing body failing to ban Russian contenders across the board, the mind-boggling scale of this corrupt endeavour sinks in – and, with Qatar set to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, you find yourself wondering if you can ever take victories in any professional sport seriously again. If this is anything to go by, we’re all losers.
Icarus is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.