Sundance Review: ICARUS

What starts as a doc about steroid use becomes something much bigger.

Like most Canadians I watched with pride back in 1988 while sprinter Ben Johnson took home the 100m Gold at the Seoul Olympics, crushing his American and Brit competitors by what felt by a mile. When the news later broke that he’d taken horse steroids to run faster just a little bit of that innocence was forever stripped away.

In the years that followed we had Baseball players beating decades-old records, NFL players turning into HGH-guzzling giants, wrestlers pumping up preposterously and a monorchidic man named Lance taking two wheels to yellow-shirted glory in the Tour de France, all thanks to a similar and nefarious drive for performance at any cost. 

It’s this last cheat that drew Bryan Fogel to make the documentary Icarus. The actor and avid cyclist wanted to follow in Morgan Spurlock’s masochistic footsteps, trading Big Macs for testosterone injections in order to see the effect they’d have on his amateur racing regimen. With the prick of a needle or two Fogel would show, on camera, how the miracles of hormones could help a guy make it into the upper tier.

In order to dial in his regimen he solicited the help of a local expert, who then put him in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russian anti-doping lab and a world expert on detecting drugs.

This is when things got weird.

The irony of an anti-doping expert schooling a stranger on a cocktail that would enhance performance without getting caught wasn’t lost on Fogel, and to his credit the filmmaker quickly realised this story was a far more provocative path to ride down. In time the drama would create an international furor, involving politicians all the way up to Putin, the banishment (and then reinstatement) of an entire National team, and question after question about the efficacy and ethics surrounding “clean” athletics.

As the events of the film become more and more complicated, Fogel and his editors manage the admirable task of maintaining coherence. It would be easy for the work to fall into a mere polemic, but it does well to keep its moral compass pointed in the right direction without appearing obnoxiously agenda driven. This is a work of strong journalism that nonetheless is guided by a particular perspective, exactly what one would want from a story of this magnitude.

If there’s one caution, it’s that the ingredients are there for viewers to ascribe nationalistic malice to the Russians while American and other National competitors are somehow always “lone wolf” cheats. One can firmly examine the very real, very political motivations of the National team in Russia without falling into stereotypes that ignore similar culpability elsewhere. Just as with the Russian “hacking” of the political system, there’s a shocking lack of self-reflection by those who were equally culpable of such machinations on this side of the ideological divide, but that of course is fodder for another narrative.

For Icarus the case is made clearly and effectively, and it’s that rare doc that uncovers a truth so powerful (and dangerous) that it itself becomes part of the news. As a provocative work it’s effective, as a cautionary tale it’s profound. Yet Icarus’ greatest strength isn’t simply the headline-grabbing findings but the way the story is told in supremely human terms. Grigory’s own struggles are compelling apart from the greater implications, and as a subject he’s an indelible one. 

The effectiveness of Icarus’ advocacy may be diminished in this new landscape where more politically resonant cheating is dismissed as sore-losing, yet the film’s power remains palpable. A fascinating look into the dark corners of sport, this investigation surely points to a constellation of stories of similar provocation that deserve to be told, and speaks to the very real challenges of maintaining athletic purity when the cheating is both easy to do and near impossible to detect. 

At times disheartening, at times hopeful, the flight of Icarus is a bumpy one, yet thanks to Fogel and his team this film just might lead the way to smoother sailing in the future.