ICARUS (2017, 121min, Bryan Fogel)

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”.

George Orwell


Pros: halfway between a sports documentary and a thriller; Grigory Rodchenkov, a funny person for whom we feel sorry, as we suspect he was a victim of the Russian political system.

Cons: unclear if Bryan´s samples tested positive or negative; that is impossible to know how deep and wide the doping use sports is, at professional or even amateur level.

When I found this documentary in a streaming platform, I didn´t know that it had won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, neither that it was about doping in sports and had made headlines. It was an obvious and wise choice to watch.

The documentary starts in 2014 with director Bryan Fogel explaining his decision to participate in the hardest amateur cycling event in the world, a seven-day race in the French Alps called Haute Route. An amateur cyclist for many years, he manages to finish in 14th position overall.

Bryan decides to get through a doping programme overseen by a scientist. The documentary initial objective is to prove that he could get through all the doping controls clean and compete with an extra advantage in next year´s Haute Route. This would demonstrate that the system in place to test athletes is not working.

We know from Don Catlin, director of the laboratory that tested Armstrong more than 50 times over his career, that he never failed a test. He decides to step back as the scientist overlooking Bryan doping programme worried about the consequences on his reputation. He recommends a colleague, Russian director of the anti-doping laboratory in Moscow Grigory Rodchenkov.

After talking in the phone, Grigory surprisingly agrees to oversee Brian´s doping schedule. It will consist of injections of human growth hormone and testosterone, plus a lot of pills, while keeping urine samples frozen.

Grigory travels to LA to meet Brian and collect his urine samples, smuggling them in his own luggage for transportation to Moscow. He is a funny character that worked in 1989 in LA, where he won the Santa Monica marathon, who talks naturally about doping and how he was injected stanozolol by his mother.

Just before Haute Route Brian gets a power test where he achieves 350 watts of power, against the 250 before his doping. Nevertheless, he finishes in worse position than the previous year. After the race he travels to Moscow with the last samples for Grigory.

With Brian back in the USA the documentary turns into a thriller. A WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) report about the state-sponsored Russian doping program confirms allegations present in an earlier German documentary pointing to Grigory as one of those responsible of a wide conspiracy to benefit Russian athletes. The report calls for a ban of all Russian athletes of the Rio Olympics. Russian official reaction is denying everything and fires Grigory from his position.

Afraid about his life, Brian helps Grigory to travel to the USA, where he goes into hiding and confess to the New York Times and the Department of Justice about the long Russian doping system, and how he was the mastermind behind it since 2012. He confesses that during Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 many athletes kept using drugs during competition. With KGB´s help, and using an intricate method late at night, when no officials were around, they swapped “dirty” urines for “clean” ones after managing to open intactly the urine bottles.

With all this additional information provided by Grigory Rodchenkov, by June 2016 the IAAF bans the Russian Track and Field team from competing in the Rio Olympics one month in the future. Grigory goes into a witness protection program, saying goodbye to his family, still in Russia, and Brian.

Finally, and despite all the evidence provided, the IOC dismisses WADA´s recommendations and lets Russian athletes to compete in the Rio Olympics, even when the official report stated: “It is impossible to know how deep and how far this conspiracy goes”.

Interviewer: “Have you ever used human growth hormone or any other performance enhancing substance?

Lance Armstrong: “No… I have never taken drugs”

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