Note: Bryan Fogel’s documentary Icarus, about Russia’s abuse of Performance Enhancing Drugs in sports, was nominated today for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Since its release on Netflix last August, Russia has been banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Geneva has started their hearings for the athletes who have been banned for life. The film’s main character, Doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, plans to testify via satellite from the undisclosed location he has been hiding in for the last two years. I am bringing out my original article on Icarus from Banter M (our Members Only magazine) as recent events increase its relevancy to our political landscape; and in the hope that everyone has the chance to see this fascinating and timely film.
Icarus, Bryan Fogel’s new documentary out on Netflix, is a compelling look inside an aspect of Putin’s Russia that’s gotten a bit lost in the shuffle amidst all the news coming out about their election meddling: their history of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) in sports.
The project began innocuously enough. Fogel, a Los Angeles-based playwright and cycling enthusiast, originally intended to document himself racing in the Haute Route, the world’s hardest cycling competition, one year without using PEDs and one year using them, to see the difference. In one respect, the experiment failed – due to the gears on his bike breaking, he did worse the year he took PEDs than he did the year without, when he placed 14th. This takes up the first half hour of the film, and if this were as far as it had gone, it would be just an OK sports documentary. But then it gets interesting.
During the year he took PEDs, Fogel was counseled by Doctor Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian who ran the Moscow lab where he helped athletes cheat the system, even though the lab had been accredited by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA). In 2015, thanks to mounting evidence that the Russian team in the 2014 Winter Olympics had used PEDs, Rodchenkov fled to the United States to blow the whistle on his mother country, bringing with him hard drives worth of evidence showing the extent of this conspiracy (you can read the New York Times’ exposé on the story from May 2016 here.) The film becomes not just a muckraking documentary about Russia, but a documentary about itself, as its old plans are scuttled to expose one of the biggest stories to hit the sports world in years.
Even though WADA’s first report, led by American attorney Richard McLaren, said that Russia must be banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, IOC president Thomas Bach was more lenient, backing a partial ban of individual athletes but leaving the door open for some of them to compete. Russia competed in the games anyway, winning 19 gold medals. They have since been banned from the Winter Olympics next month, and there’s no question that the they should be banned from the games outright. But as someone who has studied Russia up close for several years, I question whether or not concepts like justice and fairness can thrive on their soil. It is not something they understand.
In Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Passionate Heart, a landowner asks his serfs, “Should I judge you by the law, or by the heart?” and all of them respond, “Judge us by your heart!” This exchange is a metaphor for the fact that, throughout their history, Russians have never believed in dealing with the law through fair trials and juries of their peers; they’d rather deal with everything one-on-one. If they get a speeding ticket, the cop will clean it from their record for a bribe. They fear how litigious the United States is: as an old Soviet Union-era joke goes, if you meet an American and ask his name, he’ll respond, “My name is I-will-sue-you!”
Russia asks us to judge their crimes by the heart, not the law. When they invaded Crimea in 2014, the world knew it was an unfair seizure of land that did not belong to them, and could see through the obvious lies that Putin and the Kremlin told about their reasons for going in (my favorite was when Putin not only denied that he had deployed troops there, but that the “local militias” present had purchased their uniforms from army surplus stores.) The invasion was not just a show of military strength, to Putin, it was a crime of the heart: Crimea had once been theirs, and by reclaiming it, they reclaimed part of their history. And given that almost all Russian media is subservient to him, they convinced the populace that maybe they don’t need Crimea, but Russia needs it. Trying to explain the inherent unfairness of this to a Russian – as if Mexico invaded California because it had once been theirs – is not easy. And I’ve tried.
It’s important to contextualize the invasion of Crimea with the success of the Sochi Olympics – with those two events, Putin put Russia back on the map as a world power to be taken seriously. They spent $50 billion on those games, the most ever paid in IOC history, and given how much was on the line politically, of course he and the Russian Sports Ministry would want their athletes to win. Russia got 33 medals from Sochi, including 13 golds, but according to the Times report, at least 15 winners took PEDs.
Getting the Russians to admit their guilt could be a fruitless act, particularly as they prepare to host the Wold Cup this summer. Government officials have already denied any knowledge of their athletes using PEDs, and Putin has claimed he doesn’t even remember Rodchenkov’s name (Rodchenkov currently resides in the United States via the Witness Relocation Program.) Like the current administration in our country, they lie, lie, lie, until the press realizes they will never hear what they want. They won, they showed the world how strong they are, and, given sports’ place within the Russian government, plus the international stage of the Olympics, what does it matter to them that they cheated? Again, don’t judge them by the law, judge them by their heart.
It remains to be seen whether Russia can fully join the world in not just embracing western liberalism, but in embracing fairness and justice as shared societal goals. Their long history of cheating and denying any wrongdoing has made them the savvy manipulators of the truth that they are today. Bryan Fogel’s documentary may not be perfect, but as a look into the character of a nation, it is fascinating.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.