Icarus sets out to openly expose how widespread the use of drugs in elite sports is in the modern world. In particularly it covers endurance cycling where at one point it seemed everyone was doing it. Athletes have found ways to enhance their performance for as long as competitive sports have existed. But in modern times improvements in technology have introduced different substances giving competitors a huge advantage. Athletes like Ben Jonson who ran the 100 metres in 9.79 seconds in 1988, exposed just how significant the enhancement can be. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France's after surviving cancer and was seen as a hero until he was exposed for using Testosterone, human growth Hormone and EPO.
Bryan Fogel produced, co-wrote and directed this movie. He had competed in amateur cycling, entering many endurance races, and always did really well. His problem was that he always fell short of the leaders. In the wake of the doping scandal of Lance Armstrong, Fogel decided to create a vigorous experiment. The idea was to prove the systems in place were allowing huge numbers of athletes to use drugs undetected. He takes part in the Haute Route known as the hardest cycle race in the world for amateurs. He comes in 14th place as a completely clean athlete.
Fogel then seeks to find credible experts to undertake an experiment over the following year. He wants to see how his results change and more importantly, if he can pass the testers if he dopes. Can he push himself further into the top ten of a field that he suspects may be enhanced themselves? We get to see the whole process as Fogel turns himself into a human guinea pig. The daily routine of injections, pill popping and urine samples are as close to the routine that Lance Armstrong followed as possible.
Initially, the advice comes from high standing American doping scientist Don Caitlin. But Caitlin pulls out of the process early on and points Fogel in the direction of Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. Rodchenkov was the Director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. It soon becomes very apparent that he sure knows how to use all of the tools at hand to enhance an athlete and do it without getting found out.
The lab in Russia is state funded and the Russian athletes are treated like gods. An amazing Gold tally at the Sochi Winter Olympics resulted in serious doping rumours. That in turn resulted in WADA inspecting Dr. Rodchenkov lab. This is where the story takes a dark turn. WADA releases a report on their findings and Bryan Fogel's film suddenly becomes a political thriller. He receives a Skype call from Dr. Rodchenkov advising he fears for his life and we then become part of one of the biggest sporting scandals in history involving powerful members of the Russian state including President Putin.
Icarus is a real eye-opener on many levels. The first half of the film is very interesting from a sporting angle and if you are interested in just how the modern doping enhancements work then it is incredibly insightful. But the second half of the movie is an extremely brave expose of the Russian State that is as tense as any political spy thriller I have ever seen.
The film went on to win numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Documentary and thoroughly deserves the positive reception it has received. Other sports documentaries can be a little bogged down with a singular focus, but Icarus sets out to expose the truth and ends up exposing a lot more than it could ever have bargained for. Well worth watching.