Icarus film finds more than Greek tragedy in Russia doping scandal | Sean Ingle

Bryan Fogel’s docu-thriller dissects Russia’s drug-driven corruption of Olympics and challenges belief in world athletics that anti-doping drives are winning

Of all the remarkable scenes in Icarus, a new docu-thriller that forensically carries out a portmortem on how Russia corrupted the London 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi through the eyes of its chief protagonist, one moment lingers longest – the reaction of leading anti-doping figures when the film’s director, Bryan Fogel, hits them with the grand reveal.

“This is the spreadsheet of every single Russian athlete on the state‑mandated protocol,” he tells them at a meeting in Los Angeles in May last year. “What every single athlete was taking in London, including their sample numbers and collection.”

Dr Christiane Ayotte, the highly regarded director of the Montreal testing laboratory, throws her hands to her face. Beckie Scott, the impressive chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Athletes Commission, seems in shock. Claudia Bokel, her counterpart at the International Olympic Committee, shakes her head. Wada’s director general, Olivier Niggli, looks pinched and strained. However, Fogel is only getting started.

“When Christiane goes back and tests these samples correctly she will find them all positive,” he continues. “We have all their protocols before the London Games, we have the same for Beijing … this goes back to 1968. There never was any anti-doping in Russia ever.”

I thought of Icarus while listening on Sunday to Sebastian Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. Coe – who deserves considerable credit for banning Russian track and field athletes from the Olympics, while the rest of international sport did little – said that while he could not guarantee that the World Athletics Championships next month would be clean, the system for detecting cheats “is a lot safer”.

A good many experts would strongly disagree with that, including Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, the brilliant but flawed scientist who is the key witness in Icarus. It is Rodchenkov who exposes the staggering – and state-supported – sleight of hand at the Sochi Winter Games, in which urine samples of Russian athletes containing banned substances were swapped with clean ones. And it is through Rodchenkov that the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren was handed incontrovertible evidence – on thousands of files smuggled out off Moscow on various hard drives – that the problem extended to many sports.

It is Rodchenkov who also knows more than most about the gap between anti-doping rhetoric and reality. When I spoke to Fogel last week, he told me that Rodchenkov “would call me a million times, saying that Wada knew nothing”. He added: “In his opinion today Wada still knows nothing. He believes the entire system is essentially a joke. He likens the fight of the anti-doping movement to believing in the Bible.”

It is a sentence that carries the sharp sting of truth. For while anti-doping continues to have its successes – on Friday it was revealed that the Croatian cyclist Matija Kvasina had been suspended for taking the liver drug Molidustat, a substance that has not yet received clinical approval – the old familiar issues remain.

There is not enough intelligence to catch the cheats. Not enough manpower to carry out similar investigations seen in Russia into other countries. And, for all the flaws in testing, not enough blood and urine tests for human growth hormone or EPO.

The recent leak by the Russian hackers Fancy Bears of data from nearly 50 elite athletes’ biological passports also reminded us of how high that bar is to catch cheats. First a computer flags up irregularities. Then an expert must check the data and use a drop-down menu to give their verdict. Then there are further stages where the case is reviewed by three other experts. At each stage, unless there is a unanimous verdict that something is suspicious, there is no conviction.

However, Rodchenkov is far from a lone wolf when it comes to expressing concerns with the anti-doping system. As Richard Ings, a former head of the Australian Anti-Doping Agency, says: “The only people we caught were the arrogant, those who got so complacent about their doping; or the ignorant, who didn’t check the supplements they were taking.”

In Ings’s view the entire anti-doping system is built on the premise that anti-doping laboratories, governing bodies and organisations will automatically do the right thing. “It is a system largely built on blind trust,” he says. “And that has proven to be a folly.”

Icarus – released on Netflix next week – shows up that grand folly in high definition. The film starts as a project to show how easy it is to beat the anti-doping system, but takes a spectacular pivot when Rodchenkov flees Moscow in 2015 with Fogel’s help after fearing for his life. Ultimately it provides a stark reminder that it was not testing that revealed the full dramatic extent of Russian doping but an unlikely friendship between a film-maker and a heretic.

It is not the first time this has happened either: most strikingly in 2014 the German documentary maker Hajo Seppelt, helped by several brave whistleblowers, exposed doping and corruption in Russian track and field and the IAAF.

Of course, the Icarus of Greek mythology ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and paid the ultimate price when the wax in his wings melted. Yet Fogel’s film reminds us that if a modern-day Icarus tries to defy gravity with banned drugs, there are no such guarantees they will fall.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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